BWW REVIEWS: Superb Cast and Sets Make CCMT's SUNSET BOULEVARD Broadway Quality

Andrew Lloyd Webber's indisputable claim to fame, "The Phantom of the Opera," has made the composer a favorite of Broadway, West End and the masses. But while "Phantom" has its highly notable songs and romantic, breathtaking story, Webber's "Sunset Boulevard"  surpasses it on so many levels. With musical themes that convey the rich setting and psychological motivations of complex characters, the show sweeps audiences away, deep into a glamorous, but dramatic world that captivates all who watch and listen with relatable themes, exquisite music and grand story that could not be told to more perfection. Contra Costa Musical Theatre adds to that perfection of musical storytelling with sublime acting, singing, costumes and sets.

A true masterpiece in every way, the musical is based on the 1950 Gloria Swanson film and tells the story of a has-been silent film star, Norma Desmond, and her obsession with a broke Hollywood writer named Joe. Living under the delusion that she will make a huge "return" to the screen, the unhinged and deranged diva falls in love with Joe and hopes he will help her bring her scripted version of Salome and John the Baptist to the big screen. The seductive Salome asked King Herod for the head of John when the baptist would not acquiesce to her desires. Norma's less than usable script spells out the fate of her own relationship with Joe. Audiences always know how Joe's tragic story will end. As Joe narrates, the music, sets, lighting and characters all conspire to plummet Joe and the audience into an overpowering, exceptional finale that leaves spectators talking about the high quality of the indomitable production for weeks.

Everything about CCMT's production speaks to Broadway quality. The company impresses with larger-than-life sets and amazing video projections (designed by Kelly James Tighe and Erik Scanlon) that mirror Norma's grand ambitions and the glamor and might of the Hollywood backlot. Beautiful garments give Norma just enough bling without becoming distracting, and the rest of the cast wears tailored and fit costumes (designed by Carol Edlinger).

The singing and acting in CCMT's production come extremely close to surpassing that of the original Broadway production, which starred Glenn Close as the leading lady. While CCMT's Annmarie Martin does not always portray Norma's bi-polar personality to the extreme extent she could - more likely due to the fast-paced nature of the script than to her acting abilities - Martin possesses an elegant and bewitching voice, and she reaches levels of pure brilliance in those last few crucial moments.  

After singing with incredible energy in almost every number of the show, Robert Lopez (Joe), gives a glorious, remarkable performance. Lopez's energy drives the intensity of the fiery finale as Norma's antics drive Joe over The Edge.  

Aside from the show's climax, Gene Bencomo leaves the most lasting impression with his passionate and compelling performance as Norma's butler and former husband, Max. Already delivering a well-built and accomplished vocal performance, Bencomo reaches blissful high notes that transport audiences to an exhilarating place of ecstasy.

Nicole Helfer, who plays Joe's other love interest, also delivers strong vocals with a nice, operatic voice and a charming performance. She and the other leads are backed by a fantastic chorus with a tight sound and a flawless orchestra led by musical director and conductor Karl Pister.  

Despite a few small sound glitches, CCMT's production is a technical tour de force. Director and choreographer Michael Ryken pulls together a team that uses every detail to create a piece as alluring, engrossing and mesmerizing as its leading lady. 

Through April 15 

Contra Costa Musical Theatre

At the Lesher Center for the Arts

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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