There are two ways of looking at Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine which was revived for a sell-out season at the Menier Chocolate Factory at the end of last year and is now at the Wyndham’s: it is a masterpiece, or just plain arid.
I oscillate between both assessments and still much prefer the next Sondheim/Lapine collaboration, Into the Woods. On the plus side, Sam Buntrock’s production remains as taut as a drawn bow, the projection designs of Timothy Bird (a little messy at the Menier) look gorgeous in the Wyndham’s proscenium, Daniel Evans is a wonderful George, injecting the show with much needed emotional urgency, and Jason Carr’s new orchestrations for just five musicians are brilliant.
George is a modernist artist in two halves. In the first, he's the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, bringing to life his masterpiece on the banks of the Seine, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, giving each character a back story and losing his girlfriend Dot (Jenna Russell, replacing the Menier’s Anna Jane Casey) to the baker who kneads her in bed while George dithers over his palette.
In the second, he's a head-in-air conceptual artist. The hard-won harmony of the stirringly effulgent first act finale dissolves into a contemporary New York art gallery where George (now the 32-year-old great grandson of the painter) is presenting a high-tech light show surrounded by parallel characters from the painting, mostly art world snobs, while listening to wiseacre comments from his granny (old Dot's daughter now-ancient daughter Marie) and magically revisiting the industrialised riverbank in Paris.
Like Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Sondheim and Lapine attempt to humanise figures frozen in a frieze. “It’s Hot Up Here” they sing as the sun, and the colour, trap them in time. The idea of replication in the Seurat painting is wittily extended to the doubling of the soldier, and of George, with full-size projected images. And wittiest of all, another great Seurat painting, “Bathers at Asnieres”, invades the first.
In the Chicago Art Institute, where “La Grande Jatte” hangs, I remember being disappointed in its size. It measures, in fact, seven feet by ten (this exact size of frame hangs like furniture on the stage in David Farley’s predominantly white canvas design); the scale seemed just too small to fulfil the narrative potential, which is exactly the fault Sondheim has repaired, however painfully. For there are long passages that go nowhere, and the dib-dab-daub style of writing often disappears up its own coda.
But when the rhythmic pulse quickens under Evans “Finishing the Hat”, or syncopations nibble at harmonies in the ensemble “Putting It Together”, you share the discovery of impatient genius hitting on the right expression. The musical direction is by Caroline Humphris, and there is much to savour in the performances of Gay Soper as an old crone, and Liza Sadovy and Simon Green as a pair of fancy-pants art fanciers.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from November 2005 and this production's original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory is on a roll: fresh from its double wins of the Peter Brook Empty Space and Evening Standard Theatre Awards for most promising newcomer, it now offers its grandest and most ambitious project to date with the first London revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George since it received its British premiere at the National fifteen years ago.
But this is a musical that definitely benefits from being seen far more close-up and personal as it now is in this intimate studio setting. Just as there are art-house movies, so this is an art-house musical in every sense. Inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, it’s a speculative account of how the painter brought life (and his own life) to canvas, and in a still-startling coup d’theatre, the climax of the first act actually brings the painting to ecstatic three-dimensional being in front of our eyes, too.
It is much aided by an extraordinary design of a white room – the blank canvas of “so many possibilities” that Seurat begins from and so delights in – by David Farley, onto which are projected Timothy Bird’s amazing still and moving imagery taken directly from the painting, as it takes form throughout the first act and various characters from it, from dogs to soldiers, are variously introduced to us. It’s a conceptual kind of interpretive art in its own right, which is exactly the kind of thing that the sculptor/inventor of the second act -- George’s great grandson, one hundred years later – specialises in himself, with his so-called “chromolumes”.
In this way, Sam Buntrock’s dazzling new production does something that has never been achieved in any of the previous versions of this show I have seen, from the original Broadway and London stagings to regional productions in the UK (in Leicester) and the US (in Washington DC), and that’s to unite the two previously diffuse acts seamlessly into one, utterly necessary, whole.
As they become intricately linked by the technology of their showing, the stakes are accordingly driven far higher, until past and present collide with an aching beauty and the possibility of redemption for past errors that is often a theme of Sondheim’s work from Follies to A LIittle Night Music and Company, as the contemporary George meets the woman once again that the historic George once spurned.
It is also galvanised here by the stunning performances of Daniel Evans – who plays both Georges with a technical as well as emotional mastery that is overwhelming – and the ravishing Anna Jane Casey as the Seurat’s muse and mistress Dot who becomes the grandmother Marie to the later-day George. They are complemented by an extraordinary ensemble of West End principal performers, from whom I will only single out one for the honesty of his programme biography: “Mark McKerracher has recovered from starring in Behind the Iron Mask in which he played The Gaoler”.
This time around, he is in a show that imprisons you, not with dread, but with feeling, and some of Sondheim’s most insinuatingly lovely melodies that include the hymn-like beauty of ‘Sunday’ and one of the most powerful expressions of the artistic impulse – and the cost of it – ever penned in ‘Finishing the Hat’. This is an all but perfect Sondheim musical, and the Menier have done it proud.
- Mark Shenton