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Chicago by John Olson

Sunday in the Park with George
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

Also see John's review of Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein

Sunday in the Park With George
Brandon Dahlquist and Jess Godwin
Chicago, in addition to being Stephen Sondheim's professed second favorite U.S. city and host to historic productions of many of his musicals, is also home to the painting that inspired the musical Sunday in the Park with George. Ironically, it's been easier for Chicagoans to see Seurat's massive A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago than to see a fully visualized production of Sunday. The Goodman did one back in 1987, but to my knowledge the only major professional productions of the piece in this area since then have been Chicago Shakespeare's intimate but minimalist version in 2002 and the Ravinia Festival's staged concert in 2004.

Kudos to Porchlight for giving us a fully designed Sunday for its 11th Sondheim production in 10 years (12th if you count Candide). Even more impressive, though, is that their show does full justice to Sondheim's complex score, thanks to the gorgeous vocals of its young leads and the rich accompaniment of music director Eugene Dizon's seven-piece orchestra.

Porchlight's George is Brandon Dahlquist, a tenor-baritone who has worked his way up through various off-Loop non-Equity productions over the past five or six years into union membership and roles at Chicago's Equity musical theaters. I've heard him sing mostly baritone parts in the past, where his big, confident voice has been used to good effect. He's just as good a tenor here, and he handles George's many softer moments with skill and sensitivity. Dahlquist's take on the 19th century George is warmer and more likable than the role is often played, though after Dot leaves him, he retreats (rather abruptly) and assumes a harder shell. In act two, his 20th century George is effectively nuanced, capturing the character's combination of charm and insecurity, and he delivers a peppy "Putting It Together."

Dahlquist's leading lady is Jess Godwin, who, like Dahlquist, recently attained Equity membership after some years in off-Loop theater. Her Dot is a strong and sexy one—we picture a subtext in which she probably hasn't been quite so patient with George's inattention to her for as long a time as other portrayals of the character have suggested. She brings her lovely soprano to the role, and her vocals, like Dahlquist's, are precise and seem effortless. In act two, Godwin does well enough as Dot's now-elderly daughter Marie, even if she does no more than slow down her speech and movement to suggest Marie's advanced age. Dot/Marie is the best showcase we've had for the lovely Ms. Godwin since she burst onto the off-Loop scene with Bohemian's The Wild Party five years ago. We really need to see her in more great parts like this. When not doing musical theater, Godwin performs as a singer-songwriter in clubs around Chicago. She seems destined for big things. The leads are supported by exceptionally strong vocals from the supporting players/ensemble as well as Dizon's expert reductions of the orchestrations.

Sunday in the Park with George, requiring visual elements like projections, a replica of the giant Seurat painting, and costumes accurately mimicking the garb of the painting's figures, is a challenging show to pull off. That Porchlight and stage director Walter Stearns do this in one of the small black box spaces at Stage 773 (formerly called Theatre Building Chicago) is admirable. The costumes designed by Mina Hyun-Ok Hong—including elegant and working-class garb of Paris in the 1880s for the first act and glittery 1980s glam outfits for act two are stunning for a production of any scale. Amanda Sweger's set goes in a non-traditional direction, with a background of big colored dots for the scenes on the island, rather than something more literal. She covers that up with a tarp for the scenes in the studio, bringing in a screen on which the painting in progress is printed in reverse so we can see George work on it. Her work is complemented by projections designed by Liviu Pasare, adding some more literal depictions of the island as well as a lively "Chromolume #7" for act two. Even though the technical execution was a little rough at the performance I attended, and not all the effects blended the elements of George's imagination with the reality of his world or the reality of his imagination as magically as have some other stagings, this Sunday is nearly as satisfying to the eye as it is the ear.

Some years ago, Porchlight began a development contract with Actor's Equity, allowing them to hire one Equity actor to work with a non-union cast. In so doing, they brought in performers from outside the ranks of the off-Loop community to handle more demanding roles (like Sweeney Todd, for example). It's heartening to see Dahlquist and Godwin, who not too many months ago would have been supporting the union "guests," ascend to the role of Equity stars themselves. That they do so in a production which can be remembered alongside the other major Chicago mountings of this landmark show with such an important tie to the community is a testament to the Chicago theater community's ability to attract and nurture young talent.

Sunday in the Park with George will be performed Fridays through Sundays at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, through October 31, 2010. The performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Single tickets are $38.00, and discounts for seniors, students and groups are available. Tickets may be purchased through the Stage 773 box office at 773.327.5252 or at www.stage773.com.


Photo: Johnny Knight

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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