The Theatreguide.London Review
Sunday in the Park with George
Menier Chocolate Factory Winter 2005-2006, Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2006
[Reviewed at the Menier; scroll down for our return visit to the West End transfer]
Stephen Sondheim's 1984 musical, in a small-scale revival, is as good as any Sondheim fanatic could wish, and in some ways better than it seemed 21 years ago.
The first half of the two-part show (book by James Lapine) imagines the 19th-century painter Georges Seurat working on his masterpiece 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte', his obsessive dedication losing him his (fictional) lover-model.
Act Two jumps to the present, where the painter's (fictional) great-grandson, a creator of electronic sound-and-light installations, has lost his inspiration and must reconnect with that artistic vision.
For all its awards and accolades, critics in 1984 generally agreed that the show played as a lovely one-act musical with an awkwardly-attached afterpiece, and one of the very fine discoveries of this new production directed by Sam Buntrock is that the two halves seem more on a par and more connected than they ever did.
The musical is now more clearly than ever about the drive to make art, the necessity of vision and commitment, and the need to overcome all distractions and obstacles. And it's got some rather nice music in it as well.
To get a couple of remaining reservations out of the way quickly, the show occasionally looks a bit cramped on the small Menier stage, especially when the first George is assembling the characters in his painting.
And Sondheim sets a good chunk of the first act to recitatif, so that it has the sound of song lead-ins that never quite break into melody. But these are small grumbles.
When Sondheim finally gets around to real songs, they're among his best - the moving We Do Not Belong Together and Move On, the witty It's Hot Up Here and Putting It Together, and the haunting Sunday.
The end of Act One, when the first George poses the cast onstage and creates the painting to the choral sound of Sunday, is one of the great magical moments of modern theatre. But this is the first time that its echo in Act Two, as the ghosts of the painting sing the second George back to his artistic vision, has moved me to the same extent.
David Farley's set design is built on Timothy Bird's witty CGI projections, that allow a plain white wall to become a variety of settings and to reflect the first George's painting at various stages in its development.
It is particularly effective and witty in the second act's Putting It Together, as the second George conjures up CGI clones of himself to do the cocktail party shmoozing necessary to finance his work.
Daniel Evans plays both Georges, and if he doesn't quite capture the painful obsessiveness of Seurat, he does get the mix of irony and frustration in George #2, thus contributing to the balance of the two halves.
As the first George's model and the second's grandmother Anna Jane Casey is somewhat self-effacing, not playing star to grab the focus, which also helps the drama.
Under the skilled guidance of musical director Caroline Humphris, both leads - and, indeed, the entire cast - sing and act their songs to the fullest effect.
WYNDHAM'S THEATRE, JUNE 2006: The good news is that the transfer from the intimate Menier to the larger Wyndham's has not harmed this moving and beautiful revival of Sondheim's 1984 musical in the slightest, and some changes have actually improved it.
So I can heartily recommend it to those who prefer a musical with real melodies and real heart to just another compilation of rock songs.
Read my original review above, if you haven't already, for a summary of the show's virtues. The major casting change, with Jenna Russell now playing Dot and Marie, is in every way an advance.
Russell sings beautifully, and acts her songs to full effect, and since she has a couple of Sondheim's best songs ever in We Do Not Belong Together and Move On, they become the high moments they should be.
Russell's added power now provides a better musical and dramatic balance to Daniel Evans as the two Georges, which is in no way meant to imply any weakening on his part. I still have to salute Evans and director Sam Buntrock for making the two halves of the show better integrated than ever before.
A second visit also allows one to appreciate the strength of the supporting cast, most notably Gay Soper as the first George's mother (Keep your eyes on her when George and Dot split up), Simon Green as a jealous colleague and Alasdair Harvey as a boatman.
Timothy Bird's projections are still magical without overpowering what's in front of them. And I defy anyone not to get misty-eyed at the choral endings of both Acts One and Two.
Receive alerts when we post new reviews