Wednesday, February 13, 2008


"No life."

At one point in the chilly current British revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a pair of grossly conceived and tastelessly performed Stock Caricature American Tourists (complete with big fluffy creamy pastries) wonder aloud "Where's all the passion? This is supposed to be Paris." I was brought up short by the remark, as I had been wondering much the same thing myself. Whatever else there was on that stage, there was nothing in the way of passion, or even very much in the way of emotion at all.

The play is basically a pair of connected one acts. Act One centers on the painter Georges Seurat and his struggles to complete his painting SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE GRAND JATTE, while juggling a relationship with his model Dot. It takes place on a series of Sundays, as Georges sketches assorted people who wind up occupying places in his great work. Georges' relationship with Dot deteriorates because he can only concentrate on his work, she leaves him, and all that. Act Two centers on Georges' great grandson George, who is an artist himself and is having something of a meltdown of his own: his artworks are becoming sterile and repetitive.

As I remembered, the big problems with this show are pretty straightforward. In Act One it is perfectly plain that Georges and Dot do not belong together. The point is made over and over again that Dot will never come first with Georges, and that Georges is struggling with his feelings for Dot versus his need to work on his painting. I need to find something interesting and maybe even likable about these people if the first act is going to be anything other than a bunch of Dysfunctional Relationship Cliches. Also, the other little storylines of the assorted people in the park need to be played with some kind of energy, or they are just needless distractions. Act Two can just seem completely irrelevant except as a meditation on the difficulties facing artists today, trying to find funding, keeping work fresh and alive; you know, all those things that you just can't wait to see a Broadway musical about.

For this to work at all, you need to have really exciting people in the cast, and this revival simply does not have them. British actor Daniel Evans plays Georges Seurat like a particularly strident schoolmaster from the Harry Potter films, brisk and efficient with Teddibly Precise Enunciation; I kept expecting him to take ten points from Dot. His George in Act Two is just plain bizarre, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, like some giant over-eager chipmunk. Jenna Russell seems to have been directed to play Dot like one of the maids in MARY POPPINS: cutesy British sitcom "ooo-er guv" energy and not the barest whisper of anything even remotely resembling the slightest possible whiff of sexuality. There was not a single moment of chemistry between these two actors, and Dot's Act One pregnancy had me awaiting the arrival of Three Wise Men. And the rest of the cast, unforgivably in a supposedly major revival, fade into a blur of costumes, with only Michael Cumpsty standing out for the really first-rate Jim Broadbent impression he uses to walk through Act One.

All of this is terribly disappointing, especially to one who saw the original production which featured the sublime Bernadette Peters and such splendid actors as Dana Ivey, Nancy Opel, Charles Kimbrough, and Barbara Bryne. Even Danielle Ferland made an impression as the little girl. No one but no one in this production comes within several hundred miles of approaching the original cast. This is appalling but it must be said: I never ever thought I would compare anyone unfavorably with Mandy Patinkin.

And to make matters even worse: the orchestra for this revival has been reduced to a mere 5 musicians. What should be gorgeous is now merely tinny. And the vocals are no help, generally flat and uninspired. For my money there are few things in this world as beautiful as the great Act One closer "Sunday," but it simply didn't come together here. The singing was muddy, the lyrics were too often unintelligible, and what should have been a tear-inducing marvel was a flat combo of tableaux vivante and fancy digital projections.

As for the digital projections: they're pretty cool, yeah. The stage is basically a white box with some vaguely period French-looking design details, and through the magic of computer technology and the wonders of animation we can see Seurat's painting gradually come to life on the walls. Seurat-style rowers go by on the river, little animated dogs frolic on strategically placed canvases, things like that. It works quite well, for the most part, but it can start to get arch: at one point the real George pours a digital projection of himself a glass of champagne.

A shame, overall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's tableaux vivants.