Amazing Journey


Layers of meaning reveal themselves in vivid 'George'
Chicago Sun Times
September 6, 2004
By Hedy Weiss

As those who have visited the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition on Georges Seurat know, the creation of "Sunday on La Grande Jatte" -- the monumental painting of a luminous moment in the lives of 19th century Parisians strolling through a popular park -- involved years of elaborate preparation and continual reworkings.

In many ways, that process of clarifying, rearranging and layering is precisely what director Lonny Price did in devising his exceptionally smart and detailed staged concert production of "Sunday in the Park With George," which received three performances this weekend on the Ravinia Festival's pavilion stage.

This 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which imagines the brief life of Seurat (Michael Cerveris), his mistress-model, Dot (Audra McDonald), and his fictional great-grandson, who turns up in the form of a multimedia artist in New York in the 1980s, is a fabulously rich piece of work that has enjoyed many fine productions over the years. But the more you see and hear it, the more layers of meaning it reveals. And Price, who has now worked on all of the splendid concert versions in Sondheim 75 -- the Ravinia project set to culminate with a fifth show next summer -- found many ingenious ways to overcome the potential drawbacks of the festival's vast stage and lack of intimacy.

With James Noone's clever two-level ramped stage (which had the effect of transforming the onstage orchestra and ace conductor Paul Gemignani into subjects of a Degas painting), and with superb lighting by Kevin Adams and projection design by John Boesche, the actors could be moved into forced perspective. And with the playful use of multiple Georges -- a little group of silent doppelgangers -- the intense presence of the artist, as well as his often detached state, was enhanced.

In addition, while the show's crowning moment ordinarily comes in the first-act finale, when the characters of "the sketches" assemble to take their rightful places in the "canvas," it was the opening of this production's second act that was most breathtaking.

With the characters reassembled in their places, a wonderfully strained, prolonged silence captured the sense of their frozen existence in the painting, and created the vague sense that immortality has its drawbacks. And when they started singing -- complaining about the difficulties of eternal life -- the sadness and humor of their situation came into play in ways it rarely has before.

What's more, the whole matter of time -- which is what both the painting and the musical are all about -- became palpable, whether in the consideration of a single moment embodied in paint, or in the notion that both children and art are ways of assuring one has left a mark in the world.

Of course Price did not forget that "Sunday," at its core, is a complex love story. And he cast two performers full of heat and light. Bearded and bewigged, Cerveris was a model of concentration and earnestness both as Seurat and (with his own shaved head and SoHo pants) the artist's great-grandson, forever besieged by critics and museum board members. (Price kept the usually overdone satire to an appealing minimum.)

McDonald, with her golden voice and precise diction, is full of surprises. And Price has used the fact that she is African American to fine effect. As the aged Marie, Seurat's illegitimate daughter and the grandmother of the young American-born George, McDonald adapts a beguiling Charleston accent and vivacious Southern style that adds just a little more spice (and comedy) than usual.

Patti LuPone (who proved she is not too grand for ensemble work), added some lovely touches as the wife of Seurat's competitor -- a woman clearly infatuated with the artist.

As Seurat's cranky mother, Sharon Carlson did a fine job with the wistful "Beautiful." Chris Garbrecht (reprising the role he played in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of a few seasons back), made a terrific salt-and-vinegar-spirited boatman. Roberta Duchak and Karla L. Beard were winning as the feisty young girls who secretly hoped Seurat would draw them. And the warm-voiced Lucia Spina played the long-suffering nurse.

In a show that is all about the way artists can provide us with reflections of ourselves, Price made it seem as if he were turning the camera on the cast and audience in the final moments. Cross-cutting videotape of the actors in rehearsal, and of theatergoers strolling the grounds of Ravinia, he brought us into the picture. Images of Sondheim and Lapine provided the ultimate homage.

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