Stephen Sondheim's work can be an acquired taste and never seems to reach the box office heights of other composers, in this country at least. So it is thanks then to the Leicester Haymarket for providing a chance to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday In the Park With George, only the second time the show has been produced in England.
Artistic director Paul Kerryson already enjoys a well-deserved reputation for his stunning Sondheim productions, and this musically complex piece does not disappoint. Set in Paris in 1884, it is initially based on the life and work of French artist Georges Seurat, leaping forward 100 years for act two when the legacy of the artist in immortalising his mistress and model, Dot, is explored.
A variety of characters and their relationships are shown to the audience, and are sketched by George to eventually become part of his painting. But the emotive point is that while love may dwindle and people may die, art is forever, and what prevents George giving himself totally to Dot during their relationship is ultimately what makes her immortal.
West End star Dave Willetts brings a touch of humanity to the work-obsessed George, whose drive to finish his painting 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' eventually sees Dot take off with another man, despite being pregnant with the artist's child.
Josefina Gabrielle plays the emotionally transparent Dot with a hint of coquettish charm, yet never lapsing into the sickly girliness which at times spoiled Bernadette Peters' performance in the original Broadway production. And Meg Johnson, most recently seen as Mama Morton in the West End's Chicago, also enjoys a touching and tender moment singing 'Beautiful' to her artist son.
Sondheim is often accused of being 'unhummable', but these melodic tunes, including 'Putting It Together', 'Finishing The Hat' and the title song are truly enchanting, thanks to an 11-piece orchestra under the baton of Julian Kelly.
But the real magic of this production lies in the creation of Seurat's masterpiece throughout the first act, building to the haunting and powerful 'Sunday' act one finale. Designer Adrian Rees has done a sterling job of recreating the painting for the stage, including an almost life-sized copy of the original, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Together, the music, painting and powerfully-voiced ensemble provide a spectacle which provokes the most heartfelt emotion, even in those for whom Sondheim has previously held little appeal. Truly beautiful.