Stefanie Powers was born to play Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” the classic story of Hollywood first told in film in 1950 and later reproduced as a powerhouse musical.

Ogunquit Playhouse opens the show this week, and has the distinction of being the first regional theater in America to present a fully staged version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Powers, best known for her work in the 1980s TV series “Hart to Hart,” landed the role of Desmond, an aging star who draws a struggling screenwriter into her fantasy world in which she is still a reigning goddess. Powers knows the story well — both the plot and the surroundings that inform the story.

She met and knew Gloria Swanson, who developed the Desmond role for the Oscar-winning film by Billy Wilder, and spent several years with William Holden, who starred alongside Swanson in the film.

But more important than those personal relationships, Powers knows the Hollywood around which “Sunset Boulevard” is based. The show takes its name from the legendary thoroughfare that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

“It’s so familiar to me, not just because I spent the last eight years of William Holden’s life with him, but because I saw this world as a child,” Powers said during a rehearsal break. “I grew up in the Hollywood that is still the legacy of all those great stars. One knew the history of that world, because it was very present as we grew up.”

“It was a small community. Most people’s lives crossed each other several times. It was a company town. Once you were somewhat involved, everybody knew somebody in the motion-picture industry. You couldn’t avoid it.”

Her neighbors were Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead and “Dezi and Lucy, who lived down the street.”

Powers came to Ogunquit because she wanted to participate in a first-rate production. She knew the Ogunquit Playhouse by reputation, and has long admired the work of director Shaun Kerrison.

Kerrison has a long list of Broadway and West End production credits, and also directed “Les Miserables” at Ogunquit in 2008.

“I said yes because I had the assurance that this was going to be seriously approached,” Powers said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to do this role. This is the first time it’s been done in regional theater, and the first time it’s been done in this country in eight years. It’s a big chunk, and it’s a fabulous company. Everybody is rising to the challenge. It’s what we do as actors — we rise to the occasion.”

Webber premiered the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard” in London in 1993. It won praise for its adherence to the film, which is widely considered an American classic.

Kerrison’s challenge is adapting a familiar piece for Ogunquit. The London and U.S. productions were huge. The set, particularly the eye-catching staircase that became the central motif, received attention for its grandeur.

In this production, Kerrison attempts to reinvent the show while losing the gargantuan scale of the Broadway production. Ogunquit simply lacks the physical capacity to reproduce the set, but that does not mean the producers are scrimping, he said.

“We have the opportunity to tell this story with the intimacy and the clarity that the Broadway production lost,” Kerrison said. “My memories of the Broadway show were the house. I remember little else about it.

“But the power of this story isn’t in all of the surroundings. The real power in it is the story, and the relationships — stripped of the their excess — become very, very moving and absolutely clear.”

During the run-up to the show, Kerrison and set designer Todd Ivins spent long hours on the phone, going over details and devising a strategy to overcome people’s perceptions of what “Sunset Boulevard” is supposed to be. They embraced a Hollywood Deco feel, honing in on Desmond’s taste and style.

Ivins said his approach was simple. “We did our best to ignore the previous production, because it is simply impossible to imitate,” he said. “The show needs to stand on its own and not be compared to the Broadway show.”

Kerrison promised the Ogunquit version will not be scaled back in any way, other than a physical downsizing of the set. The music is intact, the cast is A-list, and the costumers are spectacular. Ogunquit rented the same costumes that received Tony Award nominations.

Powers’ co-star is Todd Gearhart, playing the role of the young screenwriter Joe Gillis. He recently appeared on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

“I’ve worked on shows in the West End, on Broadway and done national tours of major shows in both countries,” Kerrison said. “As an artist, you approach every single thing you do with the same frame of mind. At the beginning of rehearsals, you are in a room, whether in Ogunquit or on 42nd Street or in the West End, with a group of actors, and you open a script and you read it.

“No one dials down their passion because we are here in Maine. Artists are driven to the do the best they can do because they love it.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]