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Jane Enkin

Sunday In the Park With George-- Sondheimfest review

Jane Enkin, Jan 31, 2012

Sondheimfest continues through February 3, 2013

Gallery Works Theatre's production of Sunday In the Park With George ran from January 20 to January 27, 2013, as part of Sondheimfest. 

Producer Erin McGrath chose to present an early version of the musical, unlike the Broadway version which includes a second act set in the late 20th century. The result is a focus on the creation of Georges Seurat's great painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” 

Director Arne Macpherson moved the large cast beautifully, showing us how Seurat imagined “A Sunday Afternoon” and other well-known paintings by observing everyday gestures. At times, the whole cast except Seurat himself took their places in a recreation of the painting. We also saw projections of some of Seurat's works on a screen. While I appreciated the advantages of the huge space the Urban Shaman Gallery provided, I was frustrated by sightlines. My seat was central, in the third row, but whole scenes were invisible to me because they were tucked beside a large pillar. (For some reason, these intimate scenes were always set downstage left!)

Simon Miron, as George, sang with delicacy, echoing the style of the role's great interpreter, Mandy Patinkin. He was energetic and exciting to watch in scenes of sketching, painting and analyzing art, and appropriately restrained when dealing with feelings and relationships.

Erin McGrath was delightful as Dot, George's model and frustrated lover. She has a lovely, clear voice, again very much in the ringing style of recordings I've heard of Sondheim's work. She's also a terrific physical performer – there was a wonderful (hard to describe) moment when she was suffering from standing rigidly in the heat, posing. She took a step forward, and we could tell that it was a mental step only, and that while she moved freely across the stage, her character was actually still standing perfectly still for the artist. She shared generously Dot's complex feelings, warm not only in her romantic love for George but her appreciation of his artwork, yet recognizing all her own unmet needs.

The other talented performers fill mostly types, such as “Boatman”, “Nurse” and “Soldier”, charming at times, acid at others. They literally rush past George and swirl around him, as he watches and learns.  I enjoyed the way Stefanie Wiens showed the repressed longing of the Nurse. Marina Stephenson Kerr was powerful as the judgmental, but ultimately sympathetic Yvonne. The challenging ensemble singing, built up of rapid fire solo lines and rich harmony, was very fine.

The main subject of this musical is an intellectual one, the process of making art. Wonderful things are said about the ways visual artists see, and the ways they empower the viewer to construct an image. Seurat's pointillist technique, as the artist tells us, involves placing tiny daubs of colour side by side, which the viewer combines – we see violet where he has painted dots of red and blue. This approach makes transparent the collaboration that actually exists between all artists, in every medium, and those who pay attention. We create together.

George has some opportunities to explain his approach to critical observers. He also sings as he observes and paints, allowing us to see inside his process. He is a perfectionist, constantly making adjustments. He is enchanted by colour and light, and yearns for order and harmony. 

While these impulses foreshadow the nonobjective art of the 20th century, George is shown to be fascinated as well by his subjects. He documents the urbanization of his surroundings. Trees are replaced by towers, as the Old Lady, played tenderly by Melanie Whyte, sweetly laments, but to George both are beautiful. “You make them beautiful,” she confirms. I loved watching Miron take on the body language of the people he observed, imitating flirting girls and charming soldiers.

George is enchanted by observation, and concerned with “getting things right.” But he is transported by the miracle of creativity, of making something new. “Look I made a hat, where there never was a hat.”

By the way, after the show I visited some of the galleries of Canadian art in the Exchange, and I noticed how many artists whose landscapes and streetscapes look “traditional” owe their technique to Seurat and his contemporaries. It's fascinating to be reminded that something we take for granted was at one time challenging, admired as a breakthrough by some and simply dismissed by others.

While arguing for the importance and wonder of art-making, Sondheim and his co-writer, James Lapine, confirm that artists are “peculiar” and perhaps even “crazy.” George is so distracted by visual excitement that he loses touch with everything else; he recognizes and affirms his own obsessiveness, and explains that he must stand at a distance from the world to truly see it. He wants, and expects, others to understand him, appreciate his understated affection and wait for him, but his priorities and passions are clear. Perhaps Sondheim sees himself as a kindred artist – he named his book of collected lyrics after George's song of obsession and exultation, “Finishing the Hat.”

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