A CurtainUp Review
Sunday In the Park
Sunday In the Park With George Lands On the Great White Way
Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat.—George, "Finishing the Hat."
Alison Horowitz, Jessica Molaskey, Drew McVety, Brynn O'Malley, Jessica Grove, Daniel Evans, Michael Cumpsty (in top hat) and Jenna Russell in the Park With George
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
With his technically updated production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Sunday In the Park With George, Sam Buntrock combined his skills as an animator and a director. He knows how to make his stage ideas work whether in a tiny or a large theater and has proved himself adept at keeping the chemistry in his cast going even when there are major changes. The hit revival lost none of its warmth when it transferred from the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory to the larger Wyndhams Theater in London's West End. And, when life followed art and leading lady Anna Jane Casey became unavailable to play Dot due to her own pregnancy, Buntrock's direction helped Jenna Russell, her replacement, as well as the musical's leading man, George Evans, to nab Best Performance Olivier awards.
Daniel Evans & Jenna Russell in Sunday in the Park With George
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
While Buntrock has been able to bring his London leads along for New York's first major revival since its Broadway opening in 1984, he's had to merge his British stars with an American supporting cast and settle his show into the not exactly intimate sized Studio 54 Theater. And the news is: It's a safe landing!
Evans and Russell don't disappoint and neither do the Americans who have joined them. And the animated staging is not just a visual dazzler. Sure Buntrock will have you applauding the scenery, but the standing ovations will always be for Sondheim's music and lyrics and his collaborator James Lapine's book. If anything, the way those animations are executed serves to strengthen the second act and connect it more meaningfully to the the first.
No doubt, many Sondheim enthusiasts cling to fond memories of seeing Bernadette Peters and Mandy Pantinkin, hearing Sondheim's gorgeous score with fuller orchestrations, and the cutouts of the Seurat painting that served to illustrate this fascinating double take on making art on canvas and on the stage. My advice is to park those comparisons. Instead rejoice that Sondheim, like George Seurat, is a unique and enduring talent and that, whether high tech or low tech, Sunday in the Park With George is a potent musical worthy of fresh interpretations.
Evans is in his own way no less intense than Patinkin. He has a magnificent voice. In this play about connecting the dots not just between colors on canvas but between one's choices in life, he beautifully connects the dots between the pointillist struggling to complete his masterwork, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and his grandson, a multimedia artist somewhat reminiscent of Bobby in Company, struggling with the same issues (summed up in the snappy but poignant "Putting It Together" he sings with the company).
Russell also brings an earthy and very human charm, as well as a fine voice, to the model and mistress Sondheim and Lapine slyly named Dot. While Lizzie Loveridge found the actress she saw at the Meniere Chocolate factory was better at portraying Dot, than as Marie, I thought Russell almost topped her delightful Dot with her funny portrayal of the aged Marie. In fact, though the first act is the show's cornerstone, the emotional connect Evans and Russell bring to their roles makes that second act much more than just a case of winding things up. Their relationship, though not a happily ever after love story, is believable and full of feeling.
Some of the actors stepping in and out of Seurat's canvas manage to create particularly memorable portraits: Michael Cumpsty is elegant and imposing both as a successful artist with the right connections and as a museum director who also knows how to navigate the art world; Mary Beth Peil is superb as George's mother, especially during their duet, "Beautiful." She makes a more glamorous second act appearance as an art critic; Alexander Gemignani lends a proper rough, tough presence as a one-eyed boatman.
The animations really must be seen to be appreciated. It's gasp inducing to watch George's charcoal sketches jump off his sketch pad and across the blank white walls and then see the background details filled in bit by bit-- dot by dot. The moving boats and dogs are great fun. The piece-de-resistance that ends the first act has George go to each actor and direct them to their place in the finished portrait. The second act continues the astonishing animations, with the actors complaining about things like not being positioned to show their best profile and the museum wall on which the painting hangs dramatically recedes.
Unusual as it is to have a big Broadway musical orchestrated for just five musicians, I found this less bothersome then the big orchestra, over-amplified hollow sound typical of so many musicals. The small orchestra's rat-tat-tat rhythms perfectly echo the dot-dot-dot brush strokes and never overwhelm the lyrics.
For more plot details, see our London review following the production notes. To preview bits and pieces from the show and to have a look at an image of the painting that inspired the show, check out these links:
The title song by Daniel Evans & Jenna Russell
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte -- as it hangs at the Chicago Arts Institute
BROADWAY PRODUCTION NOTES
(*indicates listing to be same as in London)
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Book: James Lapine
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Sam Buntrock
Cast: *Daniel Evans (George), *Jenna Russell (Dot & Marie), Michael Cumpsty (Jules & Bob), Alexander Gemignani (Boatman & Dennis), Jessica Molaskey (Yvonne & Naomi) with Mary Beth Peil (Old Lady & Blair); also Ed Dixon (Mr. Charles), Santino Fontana (Soldier & Alex), Kelsey Fowler (Louise), Jessica Grove (Celeste #2 & Silent Artist), Alison Horowitz (Louise), Stacie Morgain Lewis (Frieda & Betty), Drew McVety (Louis & Billy), Anne L. Nathan (Nurse & Mrs. Harriet), Brynn O'Malley (Celeste #1), David Turner (Franz & Lee).
Musical staging: Christopher Gattelli
Musical Director: Caroline Humphris
Orchestrations, Jason Carr
Music Cordinator: John Miller
*Set and Costume Design: David Farley
Lighting: Ken Billington
Sound: Sebastian Frost
Projection design: Timothy Bird, Knifedge Creative Network
Hair & Wig Design Tom Watson
Running Time: Approx Two hours and forty minutes including one intermission
Menier Chocolate Factory production by the Roundabout Theater Company atStudio 54 Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
From 1/25/08/opening 2/21/08/closing 6/01/08--extended to 6/15/08- and again to 6/29/08
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat - Sun at 2pm
Tickets: $36.25 - $121.25
Sunday In The Park With George/Dot
No Life/Jules and Yvonne
Colour and Light/Dot and George
Gossip/Celeste #1, Celeste #2, Boatman, Nurse, Old Lady, Jules, Yvonne
The Day Off/George, Nurse, Franz, Freida, Boatman, Soldier, Celeste #1, Celeste #2, Yvonne, Jules, Louise, Louis
Everybody Loves Louis/Dot
Finishing the Hat/George
We Do Not Belong Together/Dot, George
Beautiful/Old Lady, George
It's Hot Up Here/Company
Chromolume #7/George, Marie
Putting It Together/George, Company
Children And Art/Marie
Move On/George, Dot
This first London revival of Sunday in the Park with George since the National Theatre's production in 1990 is a masterpiece of design. In the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is itself celebrating the Best Newcomer Award from the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the designers have recreated a backdrop on which we can see Georges Seurat's classic pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte come to life. It is very well known as a picture of nineteenth century people relaxing on their day off on an island on the Seine near Paris, France. Although from a distance it looks like an impressionist painting, the technique used is pointillism, a series of painted dots, a rounded version of today's colour pixels.
Work is what you do for others Liebchen, Art is what you do for yourself.
Sondheim's fictional account takes us through the construction of this intricate painting and examines the people that contribute to it, whether it is the pair of immaculately uniformed soldiers in the distance, two young women in the foreground or an old lady and her nurse. We meet these people, see how they interact with the artist and experience the composer's imaginings of what they are thinking.
Dot (Anna Jane Casey) is the principal figure in"La Grande Jatte" and she is shown as Seurat's model and mistress who eventually relinquishes an uncertain life with the artist for security and stability with a baker, Louis (Ian McLarnon). George (Daniel Evans) explains to us in an almost scientific way what he is trying to achieve with the fusion of colour; where, for instance, red and purple and white become violet in the eye of the viewer, rather than being mixed on the palette. In the shorter second act, we come forward a hundred years to America where the fictional great grandson of the artist, also named George (Daniel Evans), a modern light installation artist is looking for inspiration and an explanation of what constitutes art. At his exhibition is his ninety year old grandmother Marie (Anna Jane Casey) supposed daughter of Georges Seurat. The whole musical is as much a discussion of what is art as a biographical narrative.
Dot the model talks about her attraction to the artist ( "artists are bizarre, fixed, cold, that's you George you're bizarre, fixed, cold, I like that in a man, fixed, cold...") despite the number of cold, damp Sundays she has to spend standing still for art. And when George says, "Don't move your mouth" that is a tall order for a singer. We get an insight into Dot's frustration with George for breaking his promise to her to take her to the Follies -- not the Sondheim musical Follies but the Follies Bergère in Paris. There are moments of wit, as Dot paints and powders herself so George paints her image. This picture is one of the few of Seurat's work to survive of his real life lover and model Madeleine Knobloch).
Wittily George sings the voices of the dogs in the paintings. The lapdog Fifi sings, " Stuck all week on a lady's lap! Nothing to do but yawn and nap. Can you blame me if I yap?" Other songs tell of the servants Franz (Steven Kynman) and Freida (Anna Lowe) and their day in the park on their one day off a week. George's highly quotable mantra, "order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, harmony" underlines his work. Besides his relationship with Dot, we see George with the old lady who turns out to be his mother. Driven as he is by his art, George is limited in his ability to connect with his girlfriend, his mother and even himself. The duet with his mother "Beautiful" is as much about George's experience of family dissonance as it is about what is beautiful as opposed to merely pretty . Act One closes with the whole cast looking at the easel over George's shoulder as they argue with each other in a cacophony of conflict.
Act Two opens with the finished painting and the candid comments of the sitters, "I hate this profile" says one, "No-one can see my profile" sings another who has her back turned in the painting, "I hate this dress" complains another. The modern scenes in Act Two I found less interesting but this interval is short, culminating with George being advised to "Move On" and presumably finding a balance between art and life.
Daniel Evans compellingly holds centre stage for much of the production as the serious, bearded and dark eyed George, but there is super support from the ensemble. I liked Liza Sadovy's Yvonne married to art critic Jules (Simon Green), more respectable than Dot but envying her her looks. Anna Jane Casey as Marie has the very difficult task of ageing into a nonagenarian in the American scenes but captures Dot's social ambition very well.
The visual glue that holds this production together is not just the accurate costume but the projection of the unfinished painting and the way in which the real cast interacts with projected figures. David Farley designed the set and costumes, Timothy Bird, the projections. One soldier (Christopher Colley) has a conversation with his projected pairing, someone pours real champagne into the glass held by a projected figure. It is clever and witty and diverting. This projection means that in the second half, modern day George can leave his projected alter ego in conversation while he can directly address the audience. The painting is built up slowly but the first drawing has charcoal drawn steam ships that puff along the river to deliver the Sunday visitors. The trees burst into pink blossom as George sings "Beautiful" with his mother. A figure in a hat in the distance, probably the same figure as in "Une Baignade", Seurat's other famous painting in London's National Gallery, is shown wearing just a hat until his clothes are added at the end. The dogs can run across the back drop or settle down on a smaller canvas propped to the fore of the stage.
Director Sam Buntrock, who it is no surprise to learn is also an animator and animation director. He has achieved a magnificent new look for a this musical masterpiece which shines in the Menier's intimate space.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Sam Buntrock
Starring: Daniel Evans, Anna Jane Casey (editor's note: when the show moved to the West End, Casey was unavailable and thusreplaced by Jenna Russell)
With: Gay Soper, Joanne Redman, Simon Green, Liza Sadovy, Alasdair Harvey, Christopher Colley, Sarah French Ellis, Kaisa Hammarlund, Mark McKerracher, Ian McLarnon, Steven Kynman, Anna Lowe, Lauren Calpin/Natalie Paris
Musical Director: Caroline Humphris
Set and Costume Design: David Farley
Projection Design: Timothy Bird
Musical Staging: Christopher Gattelli
Lighting: Natasha Chivers and Mike Roberts
Sound: Sebastian Frost and Gareth Owen
Orchestrator: Jason Carr
Projection Co-ordination: Malcolm Mellows
Produced by David Babani and Danielle Tarento
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7907 7060
Booking to 19th February 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th November 2005 performance at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide