Wednesday, October 17, 2012

With Pointedly-Rendered 'Sunday in the Park with George,' Chicago Shakespeare Theater Paints a Masterpiece -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sunday in the Park with George
a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
directed by Gary Griffin
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru November 11

There are few musicals I’ve ever attended with greater anticipation of absolute delight than Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1984, Sunday in the Park with George.

It isn’t just that Sunday… is one of my all-time favorite musicals and the one I like best from Sondheim, my favorite composer (excepting West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics, but not the music).

And it’s not simply that the show is a (fictional) dramatization of the creation of my all-time favorite painting—the Art Institute’s miraculous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”—by one of my very favorite artists, Georges Seurat. Or that Sondheim and book writer James Lapine use Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece to explore the creative process—long a topic of fascination for me—on a more universal level (with “Finishing the Hat” being the greatest song ever written about artistic creation and the sacrifices that accompany it).

While I have seen productions of Sunday in the Park with George on five previous occasions—including on Broadway, as a concert rendition at Ravinia with musical luminaries Patti Lupone, Michael Cerveris and Audra MacDonald and in 2002 in Chicago Shakespeare’s Studio Theatre under the direction of Gary Griffin, who also helms this version and has become a nationally-renowned director—my expectations for this one were stoked well before seeing reviews labeling it “perfect” and “flawless.”

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
As far as I’m concerned, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater could be renamed the Chicago Sondheim Theater, for I have never seen a play by the Bard there, but all of CST’s Griffin-directed musicals by the maestro: Pacific Overtures, Sunday…, A Little Night Music, Passion, Follies—which was fantastic last fall and just won a slew of Jeff Awards honoring the best of Chicago theater—and now Sunday again.

All of the previous Shakespeare/Sondheim productions were terrific, even better than their Broadway counterparts, which is why I was willing to spend considerably more than I typically do to see a show, and why I was so eagerly excited.

But unlike many occasions when extensive anticipation, acclaim and hype are met with a certain degree of letdown, if not outright disappointment, CST’s rendition of Sunday in the Park with George is every bit as good as I could have hoped and better than I’ve ever seen.

With sublime songs, compelling (if somewhat complex) themes, outstanding singing, impressive musicianship and inventive visuals, this production is about as artistically resplendent as theater gets.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Of course, my opinion is abetted by my affinity for Seurat, his painting, Sondheim and questions of creative inspiration and sacrifice.

I know every lyric that was sung and have an appreciation for the way Sondheim masterfully mimics Seurat’s pointillist painting style in his score. Over time, I have even come to better appreciate the considerably lesser second act, which seems like something of an afterthought following the outright glorious first act.

And I still wish cheaper tickets could be had, although the Courtyard Theater was virtually full on a Tuesday night, so I can’t really blame CST for not offering discounts. (In the audience I noticed a few creative-types from other local theaters and I nearly bumped into Dennis De Young on the way to my seat.)

Shockingly, Sunday in the Park with George opens on a Sunday in a park with George(s) Seurat—wonderfully played and exquisitely sung by Broadway vet Jason Danieley—sketching his aptly named muse, model and girlfriend, Dot (a beguiling Carmen Cusack). At the very beginning, it sounded like Cusack was imbuing Dot with a southern accent for some strange reason, but this was a trivial quirk that didn’t persist nor detract.

Each song in Act I expands on George’s relationship with his art and Dot—with his priorities being in that order—while also weaving in the other characters who will be included (per Sondheim and Lapine’s imagination) in the finished painting.

With shrewd lyrical insight on what an artist—particularly a groundbreaking one like Seurat, and of course, he himself—faces both internally and externally, Sondheim introduces us to another, more traditional (and disdainful) artist, as well as various others (servants, soldiers, a boatman, even a couple of dogs) gathered on the La Grande Jatte for eternity. The act closing “Sunday” harmoniously arranges all the subjects in their spots on Seurat’s grand canvas, and is simply one of the most brilliant songs ever composed.

The 90-minute first act could really be a show unto itself, but Griffin and Danieley do a nice job of making Act 2—set 100 years after the first and revolving around Seurat’s great-grandson, also named George—seem not as clumsy as it sometimes does. And the second act songs themselves are still fantastic, including “It’s Hot Up Here,” “Putting It Together,” “Children and Art” and a reprise of “Sunday.”

All in all, it was a magnificent rendition of one of the best musicals ever written.

Tickets are hard to come by and thus not cheap; I haven’t seen any discounts offered on HotTix or Goldstar (though perhaps in the extension week from Nov. 6-11, things might loosen a bit). But if you want to treat yourself, make a 'point' of catching Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Sunday in the Park with George.

Like the painting itself, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

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