Erin McGrath and Simon Miron in "Sunday in the Park With George" (Dylan Hewlett)
Sondheim's lyrical genius is on full display in Sunday In the Park.
—Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer
"The challenge - bring order to the whole," sings painter Georges Seurat
(Simon Miron) in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 musical
Sunday In the Park With George.
While the reference is to Seurat's own struggle with his masterpiece, the 1886 painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," it may just as well refer to the challenge of staging Sondheim's devilishly complex piece. But from Michelle Cook's beautiful costuming to a uniformly-strong 13-person cast, director Arne MacPherson's rousing, professional production rises to Sondheim's challenge.
By special arrangement with Sondheim, Gallery Works presents the 85-minute first act of the musical as a stand-alone piece (borrowing one song from its second act as a prologue). As Georges struggles with both his painting - which depicts a range of characters in a park on a sunny Sunday - and his relationship with his muse, Dot (Erin McGrath), Sondheim takes us both inside the painting, fleshing out its characters, and into the artist's process.
There's an intricate interplay between the 15 characters in the piece, and MacPherson choreographs it smartly in the less-than-ideal confines of the Urban Shaman gallery (if you're going, arrive early to get a good seat up front - several audience members at Sunday's sold-out opening opted to stand at the back for better sightlines).
Sondheim's lyrical genius is on full display in Sunday In the Park..., which earned him the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lyrics are sometimes melancholically heartbreaking, as in George's moving duet with his mother (Melanie Whyte), "Beautiful."
There are also moments of Sondheim's characteristic wit in the lyrics - frozen in the tableau of the painting at the show's opening, the subjects complain helplessly to each other in "It's Hot Up Here" (gentleman Jules wryly sings, "I trust my cigar is not bothering you/ Unfortunately, it never goes out").
MacPherson and his cast bring some wonderful comic touches to the production as well - as irritating American tourists known simply as Mrs. and Mr., Jane Testar and Nyk Bielak make eating French pastry a great bit of physical comedy; Andrea del Campo and Dorothy Carroll deliver delightful coquetteishness as Celeste #1 and Celeste #2; while Miron does a great, playful solo as two dogs in "Day Off."
Sondheim gives his singers a terrific workout in Sunday In the Park..., presenting them tricky rhythmic and tonal challenges musically (the cast are well accompanied by music director Celoris Miller). It's not a musical style which I'm personally fond of - it tends more to dissonance than ear-catching melodies. But it is intriguingly complex, and once again, the cast meets its challenges. Miron, who brings a moving tenderness as Georges, and McGrath, who delivers Dot's songs powerfully, are standouts in the central roles.
It all makes for a very enjoyable afternoon indeed.
Sunday in the Park With George runs at Urban Shaman Gallery until Jan. 27.