Thursday, October 4, 2012

REVIEW: A SWEET BUT LAZY "SUNDAY" - 'Sunday In The Park With George' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo: Liz Lauren

No matter how many monkeys you've got furiously typing away, I doubt "Sunday In The Park With George" could have been conceived and brought to life by anyone other than composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. One might rightly say the same of any of Sondheim’s treasure trove of masterpieces, but “Sunday” nurses a uniquely soulful, highly personal wound – for your’s truly, anyhow – that “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music,” do not. “Sunday” is clarifying therapy for both the creator and his audience rather than a dramatized page-turner to energize the masses. Truly there's very little plot to speak of. And although many a naysayer will call it Sondheim’s coldest work, don’t be fooled by the absence of simplistic melodies and reiterated choruses. It is, in fact, his warmest.

The astoundingly intrusive 1984 musical, still as innovative and groundbreaking as ever, premiered half-finished at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons during a stormy period of the celebrated composer's life – three years after the crushing flop that was "Merrily We Roll Along." "Merrily," another musical about artists and the folly of intent, ran a measly sixteen performances on Broadway.  I've grown to appreciate it very much since watching a grainy old video at the Lincoln Center archives. Like “Sunday,” it's a piece whose virtues reside in the flaws. "Sunday"'s most major flaw and virtue being its uneven, contemporary second half. 

Sondheim, at that point in his career, had certainly experienced his fair share of failure – “Pacific Overtures” didn’t go over so well at the box office either – but the demise of “Merrily,” also the end of his long-time collaboration with director Harold Prince, was a bigger setback. And Georges/George, the fictional and period-bending embodiment of nineteenth century French painter Georges Seurat, feels the same failure, self-consciousness, and paralyzing pressure that must have been plaguing the composer during “Merrily”’s immediate aftermath. Sondheim's lyrics, rhythmically ingenious as usual, are tellingly personal – “I’ve nothing to say… But nothing that’s not been said… I do not know where to go... I want to make things that count... Things that will be new... What am I to do?” – hearkening back to the companionship-challenged Bobby in "Company," but somehow with even littler discretion.

As Seurat painstakingly completes his famed "A Sunday Afternoon on The Island of La Grande Jatte," which hangs today at the Art Institute of Chicago, the passion and angst he launches into is more brashly unfiltered and desperate than just about any other Sondheim character that comes to mind. Book writer James Lapine and Sondheim boldly define Seurat through his uncertainty and lilting confidence – a state of being frankly more inflammable than the unadulterated purposeful determination of Pseudolus or Mrs. Lovett. That’s the beauty of "Sunday In The Park." Its striking parallels to our own impassioned efforts at creating art, building relationships, and being fully present in our mysterious world. And it’s sustained passion and personality that director Gary Griffin's new production, which opened last night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, could use a wallop of.

Though well-sung and technically well-endowed, Chicago Shakespeare's “Sunday” is only a solid staging of a boundlessly terrific, hearty musical. The cast, lead by Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack, is endearing, if not a little predictable, and Griffin's direction – brilliant in sections –  favors chaos and rigidity over George's closely-held harmony and balance. The lackluster emotionality and overactive movement notwithstanding, this altogether enjoyable romp does offer a gleeful reminder that a decent production of a Sondheim musical is still entirely preferable to spectacular stagings of most everything else.

A traditionally proscenium show – and with Kevin Depinet’s two giant, appropriately literal picture frames, the play really is better suited to a proscenium configuration – the production innately finds distinction by being performed in thrust. But outside of spatial differentiation, Mara Blumenfeld's bright white costumes of the finale, and Philip Rosenberg's boldly saturated lighting design, this "Sunday"'s unique personality is mighty unclear. Griffin's production is, without a doubt, cleaner and more proficient than the scrappy Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin production I love on video. But artists like Seurat shouldn’t look so clean and well-funded. Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime, and his beardless, fancy gallery, modern counterpart represents a stark contrast in time and practice that is only hinted at here. Not unlike the Seurat-Dot relationship.

Seurat's love of Dot, his fictional feisty muse and the main subject of his painting, never fully materializes, which lends the proudly plotless musical an incidental quality of aimlessness as well. And not the blissful and hair-pulling aimlessness of staring at a white canvas or a blank page, but a yawning ambivalence of someone who fails to care. Jason Danieley’s George and Camen Cusack’s Dot are well-performed separate of each other. Danieley gives George a frantic “Color and Light” and Cusack, though too consistently sassy, has a knack for Sondheimian wordiness. The pair just doesn’t connect in the subtle sparky way that Danieley manages to with Heidi Kettenring, playing modern George’s ex-wife. When you look at those two performers, a vibrant history comes to life. A similarly admirable relationship is forged between Georges’ mother (Linda Stephens) and her nurse (the unstoppable Ora Jones). Some of these missed connections might be owed to the divatude of the play’s main character – an upstage screen.

In Act 2, George, now a modern artist with a familial tie to Seurat, unveils his heartless and contrived new work, Chromolume Number 7, a light and sculpture exhibit. Though I tried to suppress the thought, I couldn’t help but think of Mike Tutaj’s projections in the same vein as George’s bitterly-criticized flashy flower-thing. Tutaj’s videos and images are, as expected, visually stunning, contribute substantially to Griffin’s festive stage pictures, and never become excessive. But the audience’s early gasps at a sailboat slowly moving across the screen made me see them in an altogether different light – as an attraction to be gawked at. The actors don’t interact with the screen in any tactile sense, so the imagery always upstages. The inclusion of projections has been in vogue ever since the Menier Chocolate Factory production transferred to Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 in 2008, but this petit work with grande ideas just doesn’t need all that extraneous hoopla. Give me some good ol' cardboard trees and double down on the scene work.  

In the second act, Danieley whose contemporary George is milquetoast and Cusack, sweetly but one-sidedly embodying Dott’s ninety-two year old daughter Marie, hit their stride in the show’s musical culmination, “Move On.” But the born-again reconciliation scene leading up to that marvelous song feels fake, hindered by the stiffness of their previous interactions. But something clicks as the actors sing. I’ll admit a personal bias in regards to "Move On." For years, I’ve had a habit of listening to it on repeat to get over the pangs of heartbreak. Fewer calories than Ben and Jerry’s, you know.

But when I listen to it, I’m not hearing George and Dot. I hear myself in George and I see any number of important folks in Dot. Sondheim and Lapine haven’t written us a story about Georges Seurat, after all. Barely any of the musical's history is accurate, and there is an added expressionism that goes way beyond the stylistic freedom of a musical. Seurat is Sondheim, you, and I at our lowest and highest, day-to-day. This is admittedly the first live “Sunday” I’ve had the pleasure to see, and I am glad that Chicago Shakespeare has given the show such a charming and likable production. But, as George notes of an empty white canvas, there are still “so many possibilities.” –Johnny Oleksinski

'Sunday In The Park With George' runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through November 4. Visit for more information.