Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Sunset Boulevard
A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut
Review by Zander Opper

Also see Fred's review of First Lady of Song: Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald

Pearl Sun
Photo by Jeff Butchen
The musical Sunset Boulevard is currently being given a lustrous and grand production by A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut. With near operatic music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, this show drips with a rich, Gothic style. Director Daniel C. Levine has done a good job of bringing out the best in this musical, including having an excellent cast. Of course, without an appropriate Norma Desmond at its center, Sunset Boulevard would never begin to work, and this production features a strong-voiced Pearl Sun in the part and she certainly does justice to the role.

The other three leads are similarly good and, if there is a problem with this staging, it would be that the era of the 1950s is never quite evoked. That said, it comes up aces otherwise, with a melodramatic and almost hothouse atmosphere throughout. It certainly is great seeing Sunset Boulevard with a large set, elaborate costumes, and a full orchestra (led by the masterful music director Bryan Perri). If you are a fan of this musical, the ACT of CT production is sure to satisfy–it might even make converts out of newcomers to this show, as well.

From the opening chords of the Overture, one immediately gets a sense that this show is going to be lush and a significant theatrical event. And, if not everything works perfectly in this presentation, there are many assets to treasure. As one who saw the original Broadway production several times, it is a thrill to revisit Sunset Boulevard. The director has smoothly staged the show and the scene changes are very cleverly handled. The main set of Norma Desmond's mansion (magnificently designed by David Goldstein) is a treat and it has been lavishly decorated, including many photos of Norma, a silent screen star, in her heyday.

Michael Burrell is excellent as Joe Gillis, and the opening scenes at Paramount Studio work extremely well. But the show truly takes hold when Norma is center stage. Pearl Sun's performance of Norma is multi-faceted and she has the powerful voice to put over all of the songs, especially the big anthems, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye." Sun has a striking look about her and she wears the many opulent costumes wonderfully. She also captures Norma's many over-sized emotions and how she can turn on a dime from outright happiness to almost scary hysteria. If anyone needs proof that the part of Norma Desmond is one of the greatest diva roles in musical theatre history, this production certainly reaffirms it.

The other supporting parts are skillfully handled. George Xavier is suitably creepy and sinister as Max and he really shines in the song "The Greatest Star of All" and in the second act reprise of "Surrender." Helen J. Shen proves to be a lovely and touching Betty Schaefer. The role of Betty is almost always problematic: the character gets a lot of stage time, but no big solo moment of her own. Shen makes the part work by instilling Betty's feelings for Joe very strongly and one really comes to care for her plight. The duet between Joe and Betty, "Too Much in Love to Care," late in the show is certainly a highlight. Also, in the Paramount Studio scenes, Gary Harger is ideal as Cecil B. DeMille.

In addition to his fine work with the actors, director Levine has done fabulous work with his design team. As mentioned, the main set is astonishing and the lighting design by Charlie Morrison is almost cinematic-like and striking. It's a little hard to judge costume designer Kurt Alger's work because nearly all of Norma's costumes are almost exact replicas of the costumes from the original Broadway production. That said, Alger's costumes for the other characters are expertly designed. Levine provides the fantastic projection design, and the choreography by Sara Brians is appropriate and well-suited to the show.

Sunset Boulevard is most certainly a challenging musical for any regional theater to take on, but A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut's production is quite something, with all of the show's oversized histrionics intact. And, other than the feeling that the 1950s are really not fully captured, all of the other elements work extremely well. For those who have seen different Norma Desmond's in previous productions, this Sunset Boulevard is an absolute must and one can decide how Pearl Sun's portrayal ranks with other actresses who have taken on the role. But, even if one is new to this musical, this staging of the show is a fine night of theater and most highly recommended.

Sunset Boulevard runs through November 19, 2023, at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, 36 Old Quarry Road, Ridgefield CT. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 475-215-5433.