Without intending any disrespect or offence to anyone named George, the title of this musical is, at first sight, eminently unappealing, almost immediately conjuring up feelings of boredom, apathy, or both. Still, what's in a title? Well in this case, there's actually a clue to what the musical is all about, though it's a cryptic one if you don't know who 'George' is. And if you buy theatre tickets on a title alone, you might care to think again, because this title doesn't even begin to do justice to a show which is both original as well as captivating.
This musical is based on a painting entitled 'Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by the French post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859-91), who obviously didn't have a penchant for brevity! Now regarded as a masterpiece, Seurat's enormous work received little in the way of acclaim when he painted it, and in his short lifetime (he died at the age of just 31) he failed to sell any of his work. Seurat was interested in, among other things, colour and optical theories, and he painted his work using a technique which has come to be known as 'pointillism' where small dots of colour are painted next to each other leaving the viewer's eye to mix the colours to the artist's intended shade.
After suffering a flop with his previous work, 'Merrily We Roll Along', Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) was about to depart the composing business in order to write mystery novels, but was persuaded by James Lapine (book) to tackle this piece once both of them had been inspired by Seurat's work. Opening in New York in 1984, 'Sunday In The Park With George', subsequently received several Tony award nominations, though mixed critical recognition.
The first half of the show follows George as he sets about obsessively sketching subjects for his painting in a park on Sunday afternoons. Scenes in the park alternate with snapshots back in Seurat's studio where his magnificent work starts to take shape and 'come alive' - quite literally in some respects. In the park, we're introduced to some of the characters who frequent it, giving us a glimpse into the society of the day. As George's painting nears completion, the cast form a tableau recreating Seurat's masterpiece and providing a link into the second half during which we're transported to American society of the 20th century where a fictitious relative of Seurat's (also an artist and also called George) has to endure the political machinations of an art world based on commercialism and the need for artists to acquire funding in order to further their careers.
Led by Daniel Evans in excellent form as George, and Jenna Russell as his humorous and witty lover (aptly named 'Dot'), this fine ensemble has both considerable acting talent as well as impressive vocal skills and is elegantly directed by Sam Buntrock. Evans conveys an intensely obsessed George for whom the normality of everyday life – such as taking his lover to the theatre – pales into insignificance when compared with the compelling attraction of his artistic endeavours.
Sondheim's score isn't a 'typical' musical (if there is indeed such a thing), because there are few songs which one might describe as self-contained. Sondheim's songs often start as 'musical dialogue', and in a sense he uses music to 'paint' the picture which George is executing, and to express the emotions of the characters along the way. So, don't expect actors getting up, singing a song, and moving straight back into dialogue. That's not how it works. For some, this will jar because there are sequences where the music is fragmented and discordant, and sometimes grates. But interspersed are some hauntingly melodic tunes and phrases which, even if one can't quite remember them sufficiently to hum them on the way home, are both evocative and moving - thank God that Sondheim delayed his transition to being a mystery writer!
Sondheim's musical won 2 Tony awards for design when it first appeared in the mid 80s, and no wonder. It must be a designer's dream to get a commission like this. And David Farly (set and costume design) and Timothy Bird (projection design) have eagerly grabbed the opportunity with extremely ingenious hands to come up with a design which is captivating and mesmerising thanks to subtle, witty and highly intelligent use of technological wizardry. As George develops his picture, animations of dogs, rowers and soldiers appear on the backdrop, side walls and even on small canvases propped up on the stage. Unlike other productions I've seen recently where technology has overpowered and depersonalised a show, here Farley and Bird's careful approach has added not only to the visual elegance of the production, but also draws us in to Seurat's work in a charming, imaginative and innovative way.
'Sunday In The Park With George' has made the transition from its original production location at the Mernier Chocolate Factory to the West End in style. But Wyndham's theatre has a relatively small stage which I found a little tight to provide the appropriate distance to fully appreciate Seurat's huge painting. And there were times when the stage seemed crowded when all the cast were present. On the other hand, when the picture is finished at the end of the first half and the cast recreate it for us, the entire picture just fills the stage, framing the image almost perfectly. And the 'crowding' effect of the small stage effectively mimics the crowding in Seurat's original painting, because it's pretty well packed with people – none of whom seem to communicate with, or take any notice of each other, reflecting a society where class divisions impinge even into leisure time. On the whole though, a roomier stage would have captured something of the immense size of Seurat's work – though, there are obvious pros and cons.
'Sunday In The Park With George' is about creative obsession and the trials which artists have to endure. In the first half, we see George not only struggling with compiling his detailed work over a prolonged period (it took the best part of 2 years to finish it), but also dealing with his personal relationships, an unappreciative art 'establishment' and the incomprehension of his fellow artists. This is reflected in the 'art world' of the second half, where the 'modern' George faces similar distractions. But I'm not sure that the second half told us anything new or different than had already been made quite apparent. However, 'Sunday in the Park With George', is nonetheless a brilliantly designed and well-executed piece with some hauntingly fine music.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Entrancing production ...enchanted evening that raises the status of the musical high." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A masterpiece, one of the most daring, thrilling and, more surprisingly, moving musicals you are ever likely to encounter." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "Exquisite production...the production is close to perfection"