The Review: Eclipse Theatre’s Sunday in the Park with George
I’m totally exciting as I make my way up the stairs at the Jam Factory to see Eclipse Theatre Company‘s production of Sunday in the Park with George. ‘Thrilled‘ is an understatement because tonight, I get to reconnect to this emotional rollercoaster of a show, and it probably won’t be pretty, in an ugly cry sorta way. I dutifully ask for your patient indulgence as I’m going to repeat myself here, so forgive me. Sunday in the Park with George, besides being a musical masterpiece written by the phenomenal Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) and James Lapine (Book), is just simply one of my all time favourite shows with some very special memories attached. This will be the seventh Sunday and it literally makes me tear up each and every time. I’m not quite sure why it triggers such a response, psychologically, but it appears that I only need to hear the initial chords of a few particular songs for the tears to threaten themselves upon me. Many solo car drives listening to the West End Revival CD will attest to that. It seems my strongest memories is attached to that one particular night in 2006 when I saw Jenna Russell playing the role of Dot in a brilliantly beautiful production that transferred most perfectly to Broadway the year after. I had just arrived that morning into London, and maybe it was the jet-lag, but the tears started flowing in Act 1, and only intensified in Act 2 (Act 2 has been wrongly dubbed as ‘problematic’, let me just say outright). Sobbing not so quietly in the stalls of the theatre, a sweet Bostonian lady sitting beside me started to maternally stroke my arm in an attempt to settle me down a bit. It didn’t really work, bless her sweet heart, but that act of kindness help cement the moment in my heart and soul for a lifetime.
So naturally, when those first few chords of Sondheim’s music came floating into the attic space at the Jam Factory, I was in heaven. Folk, clad in period cream slowly started to stroll in, joyfully taking in the air as if it were a beautiful Sunday on that particular French Isle. They were joined by a crew of white t-shirted clad young men pretending to toss a ball and interact breaking down the barriers of time and period. The playfulness of the interactions seems somewhat chaotic and sophomoric in the set up, as orchestrated by movement director Allyson McMackon, making my wee heart hesitate, but when the band, made up of only four musicians: Wendy Solomon, Paul Carter, Jeewon Kim, and Jonathan Corkal under the superb musical direction of Adam Sakiyama, kicks in with the Sondheim melody, the attic air is overcome with perfection and artful knowledge. The music sings and enriches, pulling us out of our heady concerns, and making us believe once again in our heartfelt love of the piece. The “art of making art” hangs joyfully before us, filling us with optimism and hope.
Tess Benger as Dot, the feisty muse and model to artist George Seurat, has her work cut out for her. Not just with him, but with the role. Such magnificent talented women have played this juicy part, and I have been lucky enough to have seen three of them; the delicious Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production, Russell in the previously mentioned revival (3X), and the wonderful Annaleigh Ashford in the latest opposite a stupendous Jake Gyllenhaal (2X) [I believe this revival is gracing the West End starting June 5th, 2020]. It must be wickedly challenging to step into that corseted dress and pose for that painting and that artist, but she does with courage and conviction. Benger has a certain “life in her life“, even if her Dot is not so subtle, nor is she able to be still or controlled. Her Dot contains a rough and volatile heart but it’s her compellingly strong and detailed singing voice that dominates. She plays angry almost too loud and too well to almost a fault, exciting the opening number with her powerfully delivered performance, but stumbles with the motion and the physicality of the part. Settle down, Benger, cause you got this, in spades.
This might be the overarching theme in regards to director Evan Tsitsias’s frantic helming of this musical masterpiece. He doesn’t seem to be able to rein in the gesturing and meandering of his actors within these emotional moments. He finds order in the chaos when called for, but lets the characters strut, gesticulate, and fling their arms about in wild abandonment without design. Sometimes it works, particularly with the noisy girls (Olivia Shad, Kaitlyn Post), the stiff soldier men (Devin Alexander, Josh Alcantara), and the assortment of park goers (Taran Kim as Franz, Sydney Cochrane as Frieda, Bethany Monaghan as the Nurse, Ben Skipper as the Boatman, and Maria Krotiris as the young Louise) who find their order when needed. Daniel Allain as Louis The Baker is somewhat less engaging, while Aaron Ryder and Celeste Brillon do fun silly work as Mr. and Mrs. American tourist. Their erraticism works for the cacophony, but in the quieter moments of connection and emotionality, I wanted more faith in the material and the voice to carry the pain and disconnect, rather than physically pointing out each disturbance.
In the quieter moments between Dot and George, richly portrayed by the impressive Evan Bullung, their entwined attachment registers simply in the way they look at one another, seeing their inner core and the complications that surround them. Concentrating on a more focused physicality would have produced stronger emotional and musical moments. The lack of discipline makes the colors of the story mix too messily in our eye, particularly in the Act 2 social. Vocally the two leads, and pretty much everyone else floats high and strongly above it all, gifting us with a clarity and musicality that left me entranced. If their bodies moved as finely as their vocal chords, this piece would have sparkled visually, much more brightly than it already does vocally.
It’s hot up there in this surprisingly well formulated production, thanks to some fine costuming and a modest set design by Michelle Bohn, with lighting by Wendy Lundgren, and sound design by Tim Lindsay. This is by no means a sumptuous theatrical arrival, with white sheets and upside down Chinese umbrellas adorning the loft theatre space for no apparent reason, but the grand and detailed costume design work their magic pulling us in and making us believe. The set design flourishes don’t negate the musical richness of the treats being given, but it rarely adds to the event. Same could be said with the novel idea of an actual painter (Lori Mirabelli) doing work in the background creating her own vision and art. It’s clever, in the conceptual idea of expanding and being inventive, challenging the status quo, but it was more distracting than enhancing.
As the Old Lady, Charlotte Moore finds the heartfelt love in being testy and privileged, delivering a pained but connected passion with her rendition of “Beautiful“. Eric Craig gives us a very finely tuned Jules, the more richly rewarded artist of the time, alongside a tender complex Tracy Michaillidis as the upper class artist’s dutiful wife, Yvonne. Both of their tense exchanges; his with George and hers with Dot, are well crafted and deeply articulate, floating on a sea of jealousy and disappointment. While the two male artists talk in the other room trying hard to not be too painfully honest with one another, the two women play a different but somewhat similar intricate game, shifting power dynamics back and forth as Dot somehow finds herself the revolutionary victor, and Yvonne holding onto a sad loss.
“Children and Art” along with “Move On” still hit hard, and in the Eclipse Theatre Company‘s production, the vocals find their target and don’t miss. I wish the whole structure stepped down a bit and learned the art of concentration, finding the joy and pain in the moment, rather than gesturing it out so harshly into the space. It’s not an easy environment, with audience on both sides and numerous structural poles getting in the way, but this is a small discomfort when the beautiful voices and musicality of the piece lift us up. They are not bizarre fixed or cold, and even if Dot likes that in a man, it would do damage to this sweeping emotional journey. Learn to stay a bit more still, you loud and noisy girls, and all might turn out better in the end. The production of Sunday in the Park with George that I saw in London’s West End and at the Roundabout Studio 54 Theatre starring the radiate Russell and a strong Daniel Evans is still the quintessential production in my opinion (check out this video here). Visually perfect and vocally stupendous, all future productions will forever be compared to this masterful revival (although Mandy Patinkin might be my all time favorite George). It will be very difficult to top that (much better than the Peters/Patinkin Broadway original in style and substance that I saw in 1985 – back before I even knew about Sondheim: check out this video here), but this new Canadian production doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t have the physicality to erase the 2008 revival but in certain areas, the heartful voices, their obvious love of the material, and a particular quality of connection to one another shines bright. Feel the moment with these beautiful singers, and trust that it carries the truth in a beautiful unique brand of order, design, composition, form, symmetry, tension, balance, light, and most importantly of all, harmony.