The Menier Chocolate Factory’s award-winning production of Sunday in the Park with George transferred to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre this week (Tuesday 23 May 2006, previews from 13 May), starring Daniel Evans as George and Jenna Russell as Dot (the role played at the Menier by Anna-Jane Casey).
Exploring the creative process of French impressionist Georges Seurat, Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical begins in 19th-century France, where the impoverished painter battles with his art and his personal life. His engrossment in his work drives his pregnant girlfriend Dot to leave him. The action then shifts to modern America where George’s great-grandson is facing similar problems.
Sunday in the Park with George has music by and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine. Sam Buntrock’s revival - the first major London production since the National staged the musical’s UK premiere in 1990 (See News, 21 Oct 2005) – first opened on 29 November 2005 (previews from 18 November), at the Menier in Southwark, south London, where it enjoyed an extended, sell-out season until 12 March 2006. The production features ground-breaking computer-generated set design by David Farley and Timothy Bird, who jointly won this year’s Critics’ Circle Award for Best Designer for their efforts (See News, 31 Jan 2006). The production was nominated for five Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards and won Best Off-West End Production (See News, 31 Jan 2006).
Fears that the show may lose something in the move from the intimate 150-seat Menier to the 750-seat, proscenium arch Wyndham’s were allayed. In its new home, critics still marvelled at the show’s design, which uses projections to make the paintings come to life, and admired the strong, moving performances of the cast. They were almost universally impressed with the production, although one found Stephen Sondheim’s original score a bit too much like musicals by numbers.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “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.” He admitted: “there are long passages that go nowhere, and the dib-dab-daub style of writing often disappears up its own coda.” However, “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.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “It is a rare musical that leaves me ravished or enchanted, longing to hear the sound of its finest music all over again. Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George manages the feat in a visually entrancing production by Sam Buntrock that works like magic.” De Jongh appreciated the technology showcased in the revival, in which “computerised figures remarkably animate the stage's blank back-wall... The technique brilliantly conveys the way an artist experiments… The music, beautifully played by a five-piece band, is at first jagged, terse and discordant, matching the 19th-century painter's pointillistic technique, but then it bursts out again and again into cascades of lyrical, joyful, shimmering string and piano sound.” While Lapine's book still “cannot altogether disarm the criticism that the second act, which leaps into the late 20th century, forms a disconnected coda to the first”, the overall effect is “an enchanted evening that raises the status of the musical high.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Moving theatre can be disruptive, but this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical transfers from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End with triumphant ease. If anything, the picture-frame stage adds another layer to its meditations on art… the show effortlessly combines the general with the particular; this semi-fictionalised Seurat embodies the ungovernable obsessiveness of the true artist… Sam Buntrock's revival… combines technical wizardry with an emotional charge. The eyes are constantly dazzled by David Farley's design and Timothy Bird's projections…The show also speaks to the heart.” Billington praised Daniel Evans’ “consummate style”, and was particularly taken with Jenna Russell, “who lends the show a whole new dimension”. Elsewhere, Simon Green and Gay Soper “stand out in a strong ensemble”. Taken altogether, “the joy of the show is that it buries the idea that Sondheim is a minority taste appealing only to a cultist crowd.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times - “Sam Buntrock’s exquisite production transfers triumphantly to the West End… David Farley’s elegant white set and Timothy Bird’s staggeringly inventive projected animation, which uses colour and light to create famous works of art on Farley’s blank canvas, look more stunning than ever…. Nor do the performances disappoint.... Evans’ portrayal has grown… he shows how dangerously close Seurat’s passion is to obsession and even insanity…. Russell’s Dot is earthy, practical and tough; she doesn’t offer Casey’s warmth or vulnerability, but she is intelligent and enormously appealing.” According to Marlowe, “the production is close to perfection.”
Claire Allfree in Metro - Sondheim’s musical is a “magical and highly moving study of an artist whose relationships informed his art but never his personal life…. Buntrock’s radical production feels as beautifully realised as Seurat’s own vision, in which nearly every particle is held together in perfect balance.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - It was left to Letts to sound a critically discordant note, though this was more to do with Sondheim than the production. While he admired the “cleverly designed” production’s “innovative lighting techniques” and the “highly-tuned performances, not least from Daniel Evans”, he confessed that, “like Seurat’s paintings, I’m afraid this brave show left me largely unmoved... Some people go wild about Sondhiem’s stop-start melodies. Myself, I am irritated by their jerky nature… it’s all wildly intellectual and schemed to within an inch of mathematical perfection, sure, but I prefer my musicals with more gusto.” Letts did find Jenna Russell “adorable as Seurat’s frustrated lover, Dot”, even if “few of the other parts are much cop, though the actors do fine.”
- by Caroline Ansdell
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