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Chicago by John Olson

Sunday in the Park with George
at Ravinia Festival

The "staged concert" trend of the last ten years or so and its popularity has created many new possibilities for performance of musicals. The concept of strict concerts, with books and music stands, has given way to a desire to push the envelope as far as possible to fully-staged productions (like Wonderful Town) while paying full respect to the music.

The 2000 concert of Sweeney Todd, performed by the New York Philharmonic, Patti LuPone and George Hearn and directed by Lonny Price, traveled to Ravinia with mostly the same cast after Philharmonic Executive Producer Welz Kaufman, the driving force behind that event, moved to Chicago to become the Ravinia Festival's President and CEO. Kaufman announced the event as the first of five annual staged concerts of Sondheim shows, culminating in 2005, the year of Sondheim's 75th birthday. Sunday in the Park with George, performed September 3-4, 2004 was the fourth. Each concert has been directed by Price and each has featured, but usually starred, Patti LuPone.

Price's Sunday, like his previous efforts for Ravinia, put the music performance first, as is typical of staged concerts. He has always pushed to provide a satisfying stage production as well. The task was easier for his most recent two efforts (A Little Night Music and Passion), both chamber musicals that can work with simple sets and lighting. For Sunday, he took on a tougher challenge: to work with a show in which some fairly complicated stage craft is an integral element of the piece. The choice of this piece may have been influenced by the scheduling of the exhibit "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" at the Art Institute of Chicago all summer. This timing provided a unique opportunity to study the musical and the painting of which it is the subject. Price succeeded completely in delivering a satisfying musical and aural experience but was a little less successful in creating a visual one. On the heels of the Summer Olympics, I can't help using the analogy that this production deserves a gold medal for music and a silver or a bronze for visual production.

Sunday in the Park with George would not have been one of my first choices for a Sondheim concert. I thought of it as too book-heavy, too "small" of a sound for a concert production. This treatment, with a 31-piece orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani on stage and a cast led by Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris, made the case for Sunday as one of Sondheim's most underrated scores.

Audra turned "We Do Not Belong Together" and "Move On" into arias of operatic intensity. Hearing them through a classically trained voice put them into a different league entirely. She's every bit the musical theater performer and pro when doing patter songs as well (her sections of "Color and Light" and her solo of "Everybody Loves Louis"). The part is a little low for her (Sondheim said in a talk before the concert that he originally pictured a soprano until Bernadette Peters was cast as the original Dot), and I heard some trouble with intonation a few times. To return to the Olympic analogy, if this was like Paul Hamm's stumble in the men's all-around competition, the performance was still good enough to win the gold. In act two, Ms. Donald played the 98-year-old Marie so charmingly, humorously and convincingly, she could be cast as one of the old sisters in Having Our Say. Her performance had breadth, was nuanced and demonstrated why she has won Tonys for straight acting as well as musical theater.

Michael Cerveris modestly describes himself as an "actor who sings." Most "singers who sing" should sing so well. His "Finishing the Hat" was powerful and heartbreaking and his "Color and Light" had a manic intensity. His voice may have been more appropriate to the part than that of Mandy Patinkin on the original cast recording. Like Dot, his part was originally conceived for a different voice (in this case a bass-baritone, but changed when Patinkin was cast).

The supporting cast was strong, led by Patti LuPone as Yvonne and an especially bitchy critic Blair Daniels. Ms. LuPone, who starred in Ravinia's Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Passion, gave extra weight to her two secondary, but significant roles.

If Price's visual innovations were not fully successful, they added new dimensions to the work. This largely compensated for the challenges inherent in presenting this piece on a concert stage shared with a 31-piece orchestra and a conductor. The two-level playing area included a ramp in front of half the orchestra, with the remaining half split equally between stage left and right. A large screen was used for projections behind the orchestra. In most proscenium productions, a backdrop provides the setting of the park - grass, trees and the Seine.

The projections, designed by John Boeche, were primarily taken from actual black crayon sketches Seurat created as studies for the painting. They alternated between a black sketch of the park and studies of figures Seurat created. This smart concept could have been more successful if Boeche had brought in more color. Only during the song "Color and Light" did he do that - showing an extreme closeup of Seurat's pointilist technique - creating colors visually by adjacent placement of small stokes of different colors rather than mixing colors. It might have been more effective if Boeche had used some of Seurat's color composition studies of the island. This would have stayed consistent with his effect of showing Seurat's actual work in progress, but more gradually and effectively built toward the final painting. As it was, the black and white background sketch was in view for the act one finale until a projection of the actual painting was unveiled at the final notes of "Sunday."

With this approach, Price and Boeche left behind the opportunity to see the painting develop, first with the background (which in real life was completed before Seurat painted the figures) and then having characters assume the positions of their figures in the painting to complete the picture. Instead, the onstage characters were made to reflect, rather than represent, those in the painting. With the two-tiered playing level, the actors were in fact below, rather than in place of, their counterparts in the painting. Additionally, their costumes were of different colors than the clothing in the painting. (This use of a different color scheme also answered any potential concerns from those who may have felt it would be jarring for Dot to have a different colored skin tone than that of her representation in the painting.)

Price also added a device in which six actors played shadow Seurats with costuming, wigs and beards identical to those on Cerveris. Sometimes they served as stage managers to move props, but mostly they sat and sketched on the perimeters of the playing area. This seemed to add little until "Putting It Together," when George used each of them (with shaved heads to match Cerveris' trademark look) as surrogates to chat with wealthy patrons as he continued to work the room. There were also two "fantasy Dots" who, in the title song, dance and run around while Dot is posing to show the activities Dot would prefer. They assume her pose for the moment in which Dot (in many stagings) walks out of her dress to become free, in her imagination.

Price made an odd choice in the finale by using projections to show rehearsal videos of his cast, while closing on a photo of Sondheim and Lapine, who were in attendance and spoke before the Saturday night performance. It was a jarring move that took the audience out of the piece, though in a sense logically book-ended with the opening projection, a closeup of Sondheim's handwritten manuscript of first page of the score.

Thanks to the company’s accomplished vocals and the 31-piece orchestra led by Paul Gemignani, the production was a nearly perfect concert that made a case for greater examination of Sunday as a work of music. Despite the imperfections of the production, it was a major contribution to the advancement and understanding of the piece, by looking at it from a different perspective. Partially due to the limitations of the space and the visual choices made by the artistic staff, but mostly due to the strength of the leads, this Sunday put the focus squarely on the story of George and Dot. If the high point of the show was "Move On" rather than the first act's "Sunday," that's not a bad thing at all.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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