Sunday In The Park with George by Sedos

Sunday In The Park With George is definitely a Marmite kind of musical, even for Sondheim afficionados. A friend recently described it as “Inarguably the single greatest musical ever written.” Collecting the 1985 Pullitzer Prize for Drama and showered with Tonys and Oliviers from its original production through numerous revivals, it clearly has critics in thrall. And yet… the show still lost money when the original production ran on Broadway for 604 performances. (Although, to be fair, it was not unknown for a Sondheim musical to fail initially at the box office.) Like a number of Sondheim shows, appreciation possibly builds with familiarity as the complex layers and details become clearer. That facility is obviously unavailable to the first time viewer, so any production has to hit every possible mark in order to guarantee accessibility.

The show imagines the life French, post impressionist painter, Georges Seurat. Little is known of the artist and it focuses on his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte, bringing to life each of the characters in his painting.

This production was blessed with two outstanding leads in Will de Renzy-Martin (George) and Sadie Kempner (Dot). Will nailed every single element of the role. As Seurat, he communicated an almost manic artistic compulsion balanced by self-awareness of the damage this caused to his personal relationships, in particular with Dot. Possessed of a beautiful singing voice, thought processes were crystal clear in song and dialogue. He also negotiated a potentially difficult transition into the character of George the great grandson, struggling with a loss of direction while still having to deal with the practicalities of making a living and dealing with an often pretentious art world. Relationships with other characters were completely believable. In addition, glimpses of his sketch book suggested that Will was no mean artist himself.  Also having a terrific voice, Sadie Kempner found multiple layers in her character. There was the sadness of not quite requited love from George, flashes of a great sense of humour, frustration at the discipline of modelling all balanced by the reality of having to make a life for herself with Louis. She again negotiated the transition into Marie, Dot’s 98 year old daughter. Glasses, obviously grey wig and quavering voice were initially sufficient to provide just short of over the top disguise. Special mention should also go to Susan Booth (Old Lady) by turn waspish with her nurse and at times with her son, but revealing another side to her character in the sensitive rendition of “Beautiful” with George.

Robert J Stanex (Director and Designer) had a very clear vision for the show, which was well suited to the environment of the Wheatsheaf Hall. Action was presented on a thrust stage, with orchestra for the most part concealed behind a large framed gauze representing Seurat’s canvas. Seurat’s paintings could be found on the walls of the surrounding auditorium and gallery. Having 1984 characters observing action from the off was a nice touch, their appearance in Act II establishing retrospective context for the uninitiated. The light show representing “Cromulome #7 was an effective alternative to the original Broadway light show. Indeed Ben Sassoon’ lighting was integral to the whole show, providing counterpoint to Seurat’s obsession with light and colour. Vision was supported by the costumes of Deborah Lean, which had the cast of Seurat’s paintings in apparently unfinished, unhemmed and incompletely dyed costumes gradually developing into the final Act I tableau representing A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Available space was used well, minimal representative props being moved unobtrusively by the cast. Tableaus provided character representations rather than slavish reproduction of actual paintings, which would never have worked if attempted. Kimberley Barker’s well-choreographed movement ensured that while end positions might have been purposefully artificial, the process of their construction appeared natural.

Although technically satisfying for musicians, the music is possibly not Sondheim’s most accessible, especially in Act I. This may partly be due to the level of dissonance required to accentuate the magnificent harmonies achieved in the haunting Sunday, mirroring the completion of Seurat’s magnum opus. Nonetheless Isaac Bartels (Musical Director) conjured up some magical vocals from both soloists and company, with strong support from the eleven piece orchestra.

With so much to the positive going on, it is a shame to note however that significant detail was lost in the storytelling by an imbalance between vocals and orchestra. This was particularly noticeable when soloists were overwhelmed by increasing numbers of instruments. This may have been amplified by the acoustic characteristics of the venue or positioning of the orchestra itself, but the net result was to put audience members unfamiliar with the material at a not insignificant disadvantage.

In spite of this last caveat, Sunday In the Park with George was an excellent production overall which should satisfy the most ardent fans of Stephen Sondheim whilst engaging anyone for whom it will be a first time view.

Sunday in the Park with George is on at The Wheatsheaf Hall until 29th June 2024 and a further short run at Thornington Theatre on the 28th July and the 4th August. You can find out more and book tickets here.

If you like this review you may also like reviews of Sedos’ previous productions including Sondheim on Sondheim, Sunshine on Leith and Just So.

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