Sunday… in their Perfect Park…

It breaks my heart when audiences do not appreciate the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s poignant, artfully gorgeous musical Sunday in the Park with George, which plays at the Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake until November 1st, 2009. For me, this is the quintessential musical, the perfect example of what Richard Wagner called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the synthesis of the arts in a work that makes use of many art forms in the construction of a total work of art. Sondheim and Lapine wrote this musical based on George Seurat’s 1884-86 painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and Sondheim’s music is genius in its ability to mirror the dotted pointillism and shimmering connection that makes Seurat’s painting so unique. The story centers on George, the artist, and his relationship to his art, to the creation process, and his relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, as Sondheim states in the show, “art isn’t easy” and Sunday in the Park with George speaks with reverence to the challenges faced by the creative, the innovative, the introverted and the industrial as they all struggle to give us more to see.
Sunday in the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters as George and Dot/Marie respectively. The production was directed by James Lapine and was taped for a subsequent DVD release, which gives Sondheim enthusiasts a rare opportunity to see the original conception of the show even if they were not present (or not yet born) during the run of the production. For this reason, at times it is difficult for me to expand my experience of Sunday in the Park with George beyond Lapine’s original conception, especially because it has become so iconic both in my heart and in the history of the musical theatre.
At Shaw, Sunday in the Park with George is directed by Alisa Palmer and it stars Steven Sutcliffe as George and Julie Martell as Dot/Marie. Sutcliffe gives an extraordinary and breathtaking performance as George, an intense, passionate man whose modesty and humility allow him to cower into the backdrop as he wordlessly observes and captures the world on his pad. The other characters give status to this George, or attempt to thrust some sort of importance onto him, but he moves about the stage like a blank slate or canvas, all eyes as you look at him looking and wonder what he sees. Sutcliffe has especially crisp diction in “Color and Light,” which gives the song edge and then he gives a remarkably perfect and smooth rendition of “Finishing the Hat” which is utterly gorgeous. Steven Sutcliffe is an excruciatingly gifted performer; we are so lucky to have him in our midst.
Julie Martell plays Dot, Seurat’s mistress, as a rapturous and enamored ingénue. Although I sometimes found myself missing the spunk and sassiness of the character Peters created in ’84, I also found Martell to be entirely captivating and lovely. When she sang “Hello George, where did you go, George? I know you’re near, George; I caught your eyes, George. I want your ears George, I’ve a surprise, George” her voice sailed through the theatre with passion and particularly beautiful resonance. I especially enjoyed Martell’s portrayal of Marie, the very elderly daughter of Dot who appears in the Second Act. Filled with heart and rambling nostalgia, Martell’s Marie spouted genuine love for her children and her art.
Other standouts in the cast were Kyle Blair as the aggravated German servant Franz, Patty Jamieson’s hilarious Naomi Eisen, and Robin Evan Willis and Saccha Dennis’ shallow, indistinguishable Celestes. Mark Uhre was especially fantastic as the prophetic one-eyed Boatman and then gave an equally strong (but entirely different) performance as the blasé hipster Billy Webster in the Second Act.
Overall I found Alisa Palmer’s direction of this musical to be beautifully evocative of the ideas of artists perceiving and the way reality is captured and transformed into art. Many of the actors’ movements and their physicality were repeated and exaggerated as they would be in a memory, or they became a series of snapshots that coincided nicely with the building of the painting. Judith Bowden’s set design was beautiful in its ability to bring Seurat’s painting to life, and Alan Brodie’s lighting continually brought the shimmering ideas of color and light to fruition. The sequence with the Chromolume (programmed by Wayne Gwillim) was stunning to the degree of being almost overwhelming. The music (directed by Paul Sportelli) was flawless. There were only two moments that I felt Lapine’s production tackled with more clarity than Palmer’s– the moment of Dot’s daydream in the Opening Number and George’s maneuverings between the schmoozing in “Putting It Together.” Especially in the latter, I was not sure if George’s beckoning to the light bulbs clearly indicated that he was looking for a way to replace himself in attempt to escape his cocktail conversation. The life-size wooden cutouts of Mandy Patinkin’s George in the original production seemed to make this point more effectively.
In all, however, this is a stunning production of Sondheim and Lapine’s masterpiece. It is a show that evokes chills and tears and engages both the heart and the mind. Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony. Sunday in the Park with George is a show that I can feel beaming in my heart, and I am moved to share it with everyone I know. Take a drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake for this one and experience the care and the feeling—I would be so pleased….

For tickets and schedule information please visit: http://www.shawfest.com/

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