Also see the new review of Letters from 'Nam
Boston is blessed with another splendid musical production to soothe these savage times with the addition of Sunday in the Park with George at the Lyric Stage, now through October 20th. This is the first Boston professional production of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Somewhat based on the life of painter George Seurat and an imaginary account of the painting of "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatté," it offers an insider's look at the life of the working artist. Story, words and music are gloriously combined to convey the creative process, the struggle for necessities like recognition and financial support, and the need for personal connection.
This was all brilliantly realized in a very theatrical and visual way in the original production, which moved between 1884, when Seurat executed "La Grand Jatte," and 1984 for a look at a contemporary artist with connections to the painting. The technical requirements to represent the progression of the actual painting in act one, topped by the need to create a graphics and light show for act two have proved so daunting that, although much admired, this is one of Sondheim's lesser seen works.
While presenting some challenges for director Spiro Veloudos and designers Janie E. Howland (scenery) and John Ambrosone (lighting), the intimate three-quarter space of the Lyric Stage proves to be well suited for Sunday in the Park with George. The two-dimensional painting takes on a very three-dimensional quality and the proximity to the performers offers something akin to the camera's perspective in the excellent PBS version with the original cast (available on DVD.)
One of the great pleasures of the Lyric's production is Maryann Zschau's dual performance as Dot, Seurat's mistress, in act one and Marie, their daughter at the age of ninety-eight, in act two. For starters, Zschau is both "funny and fun," to quote Marie's description of Dot, but she's also a master of the lyric. I heard things at this performance that I never understood when coming out of Bernadette Peter's mouth.
Christopher Chew tackles the two Georges, the obsessed loner Seurat and his modern angst-ridden counterpart, with less success. His Seurat seems to care too much that he isn't accepted, and he suggests more regret for what he is missing in "Finishing the Hat" than an irrevocable choice to do the work at hand. In act two he could display more of a split personality between the public and the private artist. I wish Chew could show us those multiple facets in "Putting it Together" as well as he masters giving voices to the little dogs Seurat sketches in "The Day Off."
This production has an especially strong supporting cast, all the more fun for the audience since everyone plays both a figure in the painting and a modern 1984 character. Beth Gotha (the Old Lady and the art critic Blair Daniels) deserves special recognition for her moving rendition of "Beautiful." I also particularly enjoyed Peter A. Carey (Franz/Dennis), Brent Reno (Soldier/Alex), Geoffrey P. Burns (Boatman/Charles Redmond) and Mary Callanan in the triple roles of the Nurse, an 1884 American tourist and Harriet Pawling.
Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg, Veloudos' partner for many previous Sondheim productions, is up to his usual high standard; particularly appreciated is the precision of "It's Hot Up Here." Getting the right balance between orchestra and performer is tricky in this small space. This time out the orchestra is placed so far behind everything else, the sound is sometimes muffled. It is also difficult adjusting to the small ensemble (9 musicians here, 11 in the original production) which was considerably beefed up for the cast recording and video.
Special recognition is also owed Veloudos and his design team, including video designer Geoffrey P. Burns, for their realization of "Chromolume #7," the conceptual art piece in act two. Their use of color and light is more effective than the lasers in the original production. Their take on this is very much in keeping with what Seurat was trying to achieve in his execution of the painting and what Sondheim managed to give musical expression to in his score.
Presented by the Lyric Stage Company, Spiro Veloudus, Producing Artistic Director 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, MA (in the YWCA Building) For tickets and information: (617) 437-7172 or online at http://lyricstage.com/