Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sunday in the Park with George: A New Canvas

Sometimes it takes an artist to open your eyes to the things around you.  There are a lot of great artists at work in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Sunday in the Park with George.


I think this entire blog could be subtitled, Art is not easy.  I have always liked Sunday in the Park with George (James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics)), which is an elegant exploration of artists and their lives in a world where people don't really understand them.  When their passion for their work is their first love there may not be much room for lovers, children or family.  Gary Griffin directs this production and unlocks an emotional side to the show that did not loom as large in the last production I saw: family.  Family was always a theme in the story but this production seems to put family on equal footing to George's struggles to connect with Dot, the woman who loves him.   Griffin makes some key choices here that gave me new perspective on this show.

Act I is set in 1884, with the story of George Seurat (Jason Danieley) painting his famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (which lives at the Art Institute of Chicago).  His model and his lover Dot (Carmen Cusack) poses for him.  But as he becomes more drawn in by his work, and Dot needs more from him, their relationship becomes rocky and she ultimately must choose what to do for them both.  Act II is set in 1984 where an artist working with lasers and light, George (also Danieley), presents a work based on the Seurat painting along with his grandmother Marie (also Cusack) whose mother was the artist's model Dot.

It is almost easy to dislike George Seurat.  He's distant, meticulous, controlled, and remote.  But we know from the songs that are sung that there is more to him and that George is torn.  His passion in his work is not so much his choice as it is the air he breathes.  Griffin makes some deliberate choices to give us a window into George's psyche on top of the songs.  There is a moment in Act I where George Seurat grabs his mother's arm with the panicked desperation of a drowning man.  Suddenly the artist, the lover, the man living and working at a distance becomes a child to his mother.  He wants to connect, but he cannot and we as the audience can feel that struggle in that sudden gesture.  Moments like these punctuate the production.  George, the 1980's artist, after his frenzied rendition of Putting it Together, showing him needing a bit of liquid courage to make it through his art world schmoozing (a bold choice that works here), he clutches his ex-wife like a life preserver and goes in for a kiss.  Her rejection of him rings as loudly as the moment with his mother.  What he needs, what he wants, what he is missing is dramatically rendered. Simple, but pointed choices that gave real life to the show.

With these choices it must be said that they are well-served by Jason Danieley's (The Mikado) performance.  I really loved the 2008 Sam Buntrock directed production that originated at the Menier Chocolate Company and later went to the West End and Broadway (I saw it both in the West End and Broadway and it is hard not to compare this production to it).  I thought Daniel Evans was a fantastic George in 2008, but Danieley feels more vulnerable and accessible through the particular staging choices.  And it must be said that audiences are in for a treat with Danieley's gorgeous voice (it's like God took all the sharp edges of out Mandy Patinkin's voice and just left Danieley with the warm embers of it).  I really hope someone records this production because I would cry myself to sleep with Danieley's Finishing the Hat every night--yes that is an endorsement, so get a Kickstarter going someone.  I have your first dollar.  

Carmen Cusack (Carrie) has the difficult task here of following Jenna Russell's 2008 performance as Dot and Marie.  Cusack has a lovely voice, and when she is playful in her powder puff scene and when she escapes her oppressive dress to caress George lovingly she is a delight but I still can hear Russell's epically cutting performance in every one of Dot's songs.  Maybe that is why the love story loomed so large in the Menier production, because Russell made Dot unforgettable.  Cusack was perfectly fine in the show but I know Dot can be more.  And her accent left me a bit puzzled.  I could not tell if it was intentional but Dot sometimes spoke with a Southern accent.  Russell used a Lancashire accent for Dot which contrasted with a London accent for George.  I'm not sure if the same thought was contemplated here but her accent was unreliable. 

If you have not seen the Menier production of "Sunday" then the digital projections here (by Mike Tutaj) are a workable background to set the mood, give a the sense of place, and hint at the general feeling of the painting.  But I think I was spoiled by the Menier production which used digital projection to create the painting step by step--it was really the first show I saw that made digital projections (and animation) seem not only relevant but necessary and for me enhanced the experience.  Here, I liked that the white frames used to frame Seurat's painting and around the proscenium were creatively lit (even if the frame sometimes obscured Danieley from us).

The 80's art piece that George is creating always leaves room for some interesting options.  Here, Chromolume  #7 was like one of the pink flowers from the Loveland set in the 2011 revival of Follies which had escaped through a nuclear power plant, mutated and ended up here glowing and throbbing.  I'm going to say it was over the top even for what it was supposed to be.

This production utilized a thrust stage and character entrances from the audience.  I was seated on the side which gave me a less than ideal angle on the painting and tableau aspects of the staging, but was chosen intentionally so I could be close to the action.  Sometimes being on the sides meant the actors' backs were toward me, but even though Danieley's back was toward me during the "clutch" scene, I burst out into tears during it.*  It was so violent and sudden, I leapt from my seat.

Griffin made a startling choice for the finale (which I don't want to spoil) but again it was something thoughtful, simple, and direct that served the story well.  All in all this was a powerful interpretation of one of my favorite shows of all time and I'm glad I was able to squeeze it in in my weekend trip to Chicago.  

*I sincerely hope that fact that my friend and I were sobbing in the second row throughout much of the show did not distract the actors.  Jason we heart you...hope our snot and tears were taken as a sign of how much we liked the show.  I know the people seated around us thought we were weird for crying so much.  But it's hard not to feel in the depth of your heart the powerful combination of the epic score, the gorgeous lyrics, swelling harmonies captured by fantastic voices, in an inventive presentation.  And I'd just like to offer this sobfest as proof I'm not completely dead inside. 

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