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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Not to be Missed Sunday in the Park with George
Plays the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's reviews of Breakin' Hearts and Takin' Names and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Sunday in the Park with George
Hugh Panaro
Move on, if you don't want to read a glowing notice for the splendid 5th Avenue Theatre production of the controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George, directed by British boy-wonder Sam Buntrock, who did it in London, and featuring the wondrous and often breathtaking production team from last season's Tony-nominated Broadway Roundabout revival.

Lapine's clever and imaginative script and Sondheim's incomparably moving music and literate, tongue-twisting lyrics are as solid as they were in 1984 when Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters incandescently filled the roles of George Seurat and his possible great-grandson George, and Seurat's lover Dot and her aged daughter Marie. That production was lovingly preserved in a video filming, and was, for many such as myself, the only version we'd seen till Buntrock's production played in London and then on Broadway. When the 5th Avenue, already in the throes of casting its Sunday, managed to negotiate the participation of Buntrock and company, anticipation started running high. That anticipation was fulfilled on an opening night as smooth and satisfying as any I've attended in two decades of press nights at the 5th.

Debate as you will whether the second act of the show is less satisfyingly written than the first. I've always felt to the contrary (as with the similarly argued over Into the Woods by Sondheim and Lapine) that the second act, far from being an inferior appendage, enriches all that has gone before. And, with the production design of Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network creating animation and special effects only dreamt of in the original version, David Farley's ingenious set and luscious costumes, and Ken Billington's stellar lighting design, not to mention a larger, richer orchestra than in London or on Broadway under the confident and assured musical direction of Ian Eisendrath, what more do you need? Why, a cast that can handle the heady and complex material. Across the board, this cast can and does.

Those who saw popular Broadway leading man Hugh Panaro as the charmingly facile Bobby of the 5th Avenue's Company will marvel at his layered characterizations of the self-involved, art-obsessed Seurat of act one, and his lost but yearning twentieth century counterpart in act two. Panaro has one of the great male voices of modern Broadway and it only has grown richer, warmer and clearer over the years. He is achingly funny, especially as he switches vocal registers to portray the boatman's dog and the little society dog in the extraordinary "The Day Off" sequence; and he nails every lyric with impeccable diction in the pulverizingly tricky "Putting It Together", and hits emotional peaks in "Color & Light " and "Finishing the Hat." Panaro is paired with Billie Wildrick (who only yesterday it seems was "16 Going on Seventeen" Liesl in Village's The Sound of Music some eight seasons ago), whose Amy he bedded and dueted with in the 5th's Company. Wildrick is vocally commanding throughout the show and her Dot in act one is a moving and earnest character study of a woman who grows from primping artist's model to disillusioned, unwed mother. Wildrick has sung Sondheim often before, but never with quite the command and vocal ease as is evidenced here, particularly her bravura turns on the title song and "Everybody Loves Louis," as well as matching Panaro's artistry all the way in "We Do Not Belong Together." If she is still too youthful to fully embody the role of the fragile, funny, aged Marie in act two, Wildrick fully delivers the goods on the great Sondheim solo "Children and Art", and again as a fantasy Dot in modern George's mind in "Move On."

The richly talented ensemble are all worthy of note. Particularly strong character work is supplied by the always welcome Broadway leading lady and Gig Harbor, Washington resident Patti Cohenour, who crackles with wit and subtle venom as the acerbic artist's wife Yvonne, then is unrecognizable and hilarious as butch new-age composer composer Naomi Eisen in act two. Carol Swarbrick, as the Old Lady revealed to be Seurat's mother, crafts a cunningly cantankerous character, sings the haunting "Beautiful" with ease and grace, and delivers a juicy comic paean to Elaine Stritch in her act two characterization of art critic Blair Daniels. Nick DeSantis makes his welcome 5th Ave debut as horny teutonic servant Franz, naughtily toying with Anne Allgood's perfectly uptight Nurse when his wife Frieda the cook (marvelous Susanna Mars) isn't looking, and camps it up with gusto as modern-day publicist Lee Randolph, who admires George for more than his Chromolumes. Allen Fitzpatrick is satisfyingly smug as the rather smarmy Jules, another artist whose libido is running rampant when his wife (Cohenour's Yvonne) isn't looking. David Drummond scores first as the disdainful boatman and later as soft-spoken technician Dennis.

Several actors have much more to do in the first act but are welcome throughout, notably Amanda Paulson and Krista Severeid, as nattering nitwits Celeste #1 and Celeste #2, and Matt Owen as a valiant vacant-eyed Soldier who with his (projection) cohort is the object of their affections. The evening's biggest laughs are perhaps earned when Richard Gray and Anne Allgood cameo with scene-stealing sorcery as the pastry-devouring white trash Americans, Mr. and Mrs., while Chad Jennings has little to do as the baker Louis whom Dot marries, but he makes an appropriately snide companion to Allgood's art patron Harriet Pauling in act two. And talented young Lauren Carlos (who alternates the role with Keaton Whittaker) embraces playing Louise, brattish child of Jules and Yvonne, with terrific gusto. When the entire ensemble sings the haunting "Sunday" which ends both acts, you can be sure to have tears in your eyes from the level of richness and heart emanating from the stage.

Any fear that the larger house at the 5th Avenue would diminish the show is cast aside almost instantly, especially since Ken Travis' sound design is so satisfying that the frequent 5th Avenue issues with lyric comprehension and volume are rendered a non-issue. There has been talk that this production was a trial run to see if the Buntrock Sunday in the Park with George might have touring potential in the U.S. Based on the show I saw, I hope the producers can make that happen, and display this wonderful on a broader palette.

Sunday in the Park with George plays Tuesdays-Sundays through May 10 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$91 (888-5TH-4TIX or www.5thavenue.org).


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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