Amazing Journey


George's Sunday in Highland Park
Chicago Sun Times
August 27, 2004
By Heidi Weiss

In Broadway terms, the distance between "The Who's Tommy," that quintessential rock musical, and any show by Stephen Sondheim might seem like an unbridgeable stylistic chasm. But actor Michael Cerveris has demonstrated that he is more than capable of making the leap. And although his career first moved into high gear after he played the troubled young pinball wizard with the rock 'n' roll soul, well before he won this year's Tony Award for leading actor in a musical (for his portrayal of presidential shooter John Wilkes Booth in "Assassins"), Cerveris proved he also had the right stuff for Sondheim.

At the Ravinia Festival's staged concert version of "Passion" last summer, he brought such a searing intensity and intelligence to his portrait of Giorgio, the handsome soldier whose emotional life is upended by a strange, sickly woman, that the show seemed to gain a whole new layer of meaning. And last winter, those who caught the actor as the ridiculously pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "A Little Night Music" sensed his flair for deliciously broad, operetta-like humor.

Now Cerveris will put his stamp on a part that may just be the most revealing and beautifully imagined of all the male characters in the Sondheim repertoire -- that of Georges, the painter inspired by the French post-Impressionist innovator, Georges Seurat. As the Ravinia Festival presents the fourth of a planned five elaborate staged concert productions in its "Sondheim 75" project, Cerveris will play the young and obsessive artist at the heart of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning show, "Sunday in the Park with George" -- the musical inspired by Seurat's masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." (In a nice bit of cross-institutional planning, this same painting is at the heart of a splendid exhibit running through Sept. 19 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where, of course, "La Grande Jatte" is a cornerstone of the collection.)

Joining Cerveris will be his frequent Ravinia cohorts -- fellow Tony Award-winners Audra McDonald (who plays Dot, George's somewhat fictionalized mistress) and Patti LuPone (as Yvonne, the haughty wife of George's artistic competitor). Also returning for this summer's Sondheim spectacular at Ravinia will be director Lonny Price and music director Paul Gemignani (who oversaw the Broadway original).

"The challenge is to try and mine all the rich material in this piece," said Cerveris, who is playing George for the first time. "Unlike last summer, where I just brushed up on the role of Giorgio after playing it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., I've had to learn this one from scratch. And it's not the music that is most difficult, but the lyrics; there is just so much text. I'm trying to find fresh, new things to bring to it, and to free myself of that indelible original performance by Mandy [Patinkin]. I saw him on Broadway, and over the years I've listened to the recording -- as I did when I first started rehearsing, although I quickly realized I had to stop doing that.

"The one thing I've come to realize about the show is that George and Dot are deeply in love with each other, and that they truly understand each other better than anyone else could," said Cerveris. "As a result, they also understand that they are each unable to give what the other one most needs. Of course if they didn't care, it would be much easier. But because they do -- and because they know each other so well -- they realize it is impossible for them to be together even if they will still love each other forever.”

Confessing to an immediate affinity with George’s dilemma, Cerveris mused: “That whole tension between being a creative person and also having a regular life — the demands art makes on your time, your energy, your concentration, the investment of yourself, and how little is left over for the rest of life — I really do understand that.”

In fact, he saw it all around him. Cerveris, who grew up in West Virginia, is from a family of artists. His father was a classical pianist turned professor of music; his mother was a former modern dancer who studied with Martha Graham; his sister spent 10 years with the New York City Ballet and now teaches, and his brother is an actor who recently won praise for his portrayal of two other Booths (John Wilkes’ brother, Edwin Booth and father, Junius — both actors) in “Booth Variations,” the Off-Broadway hit now looking for a Chicago stage. Michael studied voice as an undergraduate at Yale (“German lieder and art songs”), while also singing in rock bands, but admits he never imagined himself doing Broadway musicals.

As for playing Georges for just three performances, Cerveris is philosophical: “The upside is that if you can get through it without a major train wreck, you have a great feeling of accomplishment about pulling it off. And with only three chances, you tend to make bold decisions more quickly than usual, and taking those risks is very exciting. Of course with such a short run, it never gets old either. But the frustration is that I wish I could have a few weeks to explore it all and get comfortable, and to do the kind of layering that can only be done over time.”

Spoken like a painter who thrives on endlessly reworking the surface of a canvas. Georges Seurat, perhaps.

NOTE: Stephen Sondheim is scheduled to appear in a conversation from the stage of the Ravinia pavilion at 7 p.m. on Sept. 4. Admission is free, on a first-come, first-served basis, to all those with tickets to the pavilion or lawn performance that night. The talk also will be broadcast to the lawn.

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