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Chicago by John Olson

Sunday in the Park with George
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Also see John's review of Sweet Bird of Youth

Sunday in the Park With George
Jason Danieley, Carmen Cusack and Company
On the day the Chicago Cubs wrapped up another losing season, a big home run was scored by director Gary Griffin some four miles to the south. If you'll excuse the mixed sports metaphors, Griffin once again, as he did last year with Follies, delivered a knockout large-scale production of a Stephen Sondheim musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. With absolutely top-shelf acting and vocals throughout the cast, impressive digital animation and directorial flourishes used judiciously but to great effect, he gives us one of the very best productions of this most of us will ever have seen. (For the record, my reference points are Eric Schaeffer's production for the 2002 Sondheim Celebration, the video recording of the original Broadway production, the Roundabout/Menier Chocolate Factory Broadway Revival, the Ravinia Festival's 2004 stage concert, and Griffin's own 2002 mounting in the upstairs theater at Chicago Shakes.)

As with Follies, Griffin's brought in leads from Broadway and staffed the remaining roles with members of Chicago's formidable top tier musical theater performers. His George is the tenor Jason Danieley, whose voice is stunning and just perfect for the role originally written for Mandy Patinkin. He even uses a little vibrato, but not to the degree we hear it from Patinkin. His George is a vibrant and passionate man, consumed and obsessed with his art, to be sure, but neither so cold nor disconnected as the character is frequently played (and arguably written). In James Lapine's script, George fears he can't connect with the people in his life, but the audience should have no trouble connecting with this magnetic George. He's paired with Carmen Cusack, the soprano who played Nellie Forbush in the first national tour of the Lincoln Center Theatre's South Pacific. The first ten minutes or so of the show are a showcase for her considerable talents. Singing the title song, she displays a soprano that uses her chest voice as well as her head voice for both lyrical quality and power. It's a delight just to listen to her in the song that is part comic number, part ballad. As Dot, she's funny and vulnerable. In fortitude if not in educational achievement, she's a strong match for George. Her powerful "We Do Not Belong Together" sends chills through the audience, and in her second act appearance as Dot (in addition to a very sweet and funny turn as Dot's elderly granddaughter Marie), she very confidently gives kind but firm advice to George's great-grandson in "Move On."

The strength of the performances in the much smaller supporting roles, admirably taken on by such big Chicago names as Heidi Kettenring, Kevin Gudahl, Sean Fortunato, Michael Aaron Lindner, McKinley Carter, Linda Stephens and Ora Jones, plus Benjamin Magnuson of John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, are a tribute to those performers and Griffin's thoughtful direction. All of these performers have day jobs as leading actors, and use their skills here to create fleshed-out people, landing the funny lines with skill and precision. The singing throughout is superb, and is accompanied beautifully by an 11-piece orchestra seated visibly, but unobtrusively, above the proscenium (which sits behind a long rectangular thrust stage). The music direction is by Brad Haak and the orchestra is led by Ryan Nelson.

In Chicago theater credits, the word "Projections" is nearly always followed with "by Mike Tutaj," and Tutaj makes a huge contribution in this production. His digital projections begin with an animated build of the island of La Grande Jatte—just as it might have taken shape on Seurat's sketch pads. The second act's audio visual production of the life of Seurat and the history of the painting is a detailed multimedia presentation and the "Chromolume #7" is impressive (but more on that shortly). The set By Kevin Depinet is minimal—three sides of a picture frame around the proscenium and a second, giant frame that descends as needed when George is painting or showing his work. In these moments, Griffin and Tutaj have the painting projected in mirror image behind the performers—not on a scrim in front of them as is so frequently done in productions of this piece. Griffin and Tutaj's approach is less literal than that but allows better visibility of the actors, wardrobed gorgeously by Mara Blumenfeld.

Griffin's program notes explain that he sought to better connect the first and second acts of the piece, taking place as they do some 100 years apart. He succeeded in this goal with a choice that seems so logical that one wonders why it's not in the originally published scrip. As the second act opens, Griffin places 20th century George in front of the "painting" as portrayed by the actors from the first act. They sing "It's Hot Up Here" and he begins to notice them. He even walks among them, though they're not aware of his presence. He eventually shakes his head, as if to reject this vision of seeing ghosts. This business is a simple enough addition to the action, but when 20th century George visits the island in Paris later in the act, the figures from the painting return and speak directly to him. The earlier interaction, in the museum, is recalled and strengthens the case that the 19th century Parisians are connected to 20th century George, and that he may even be 19th century George reincarnated. Even if not, perhaps 20th century George at age 32 is meant to continue the career cut short for his ancestor, who died at the young age of 31. Another connection between the characters of the two acts is Griffin's choice to feature the rose in Dot's hat from the painting as the centerpiece of Chromolume #7. It was, of course, how George "finished the hat" in act one and the red rose was an important choice for Seurat's use of color.

One of the projections early in the second act shows the Chicago skyline, clearly setting our city as the location for the action and, of course, the actual Seurat painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, though the museum is not named in Lapine's script. Theatrical productions aren't as permanent as paintings—they can't be hung in a gallery for decades. If they could, this one should be right up there in the Art Institute, and it will doubtless be recalled fondly for years by those who get to see it while they can.

Sunday in the Park with George will run at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, in the Courtyard Theater, through November 4, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.chicagoshakes.com/sunday or contact the box office at 312-595-5600.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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