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For the most part Ravinia's Sunday is on Point
Chicago Tribune
September 8, 2004
By Michael Phillips

Experiencing a really fine score by Stephen Sondheim for the first time is like taking in Georges Seurat's pointillist masterwork "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte--1884" standing three inches from the canvas.

So it is with "Sunday in the Park With George," the 1984 musical by Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, about the creation of Seurat's painting and a legacy of obsessive (if often self-doubting) creation passed down by artists through the generations.

At Ravinia over the weekend, the annual "Sondheim 75" celebration continued with a semi-staged concert version of "Sunday," featuring the stars of last year's excellent rendition of "Passion." Seurat was played by Michael Cerveris, who in Act 2 played an installation artist who may be Seurat's great-grandson.

Patti LuPone, back for her fourth Sondheim in a row after "Sweeney Todd," "A Little Night Music" and "Passion," swanned through the supporting roles of Yvonne, a painter's archly disdainful wife, and in the second act--set in the blur of the 1984 Manhattan art world--that of Blair Daniels, a snippy art critic.

Dot, and Dot's Act 2 grandmother, Marie, were played by Audra McDonald. She is a force of nature with a dazzling dramatic and musical range, and the rarest ability among divas: the ability to know when to say when.

Mostly, anyway. I had questions regarding some of what she did, and how much of it, in "Sunday." As written by Sondheim and Lapine, the character of Dot, Seurat's lover and model, is more effective if songs such as "We Do Not Belong Together" come across as blasting contrasts to the more veiled slights and disappointments earlier on. With McDonald, Dot edged closer to a freely expressive and emotional character from the beginning.

Yet with her voice and presence and authority, you may have had the odd and joyous sense of having reservations about your reservations.

Director Lonny Price tried a few things with "Sunday," some of which worked better than others. He filled the stage with six fantasy Seurats, sketching in their pads. That's a lot of Seurats, alongside a couple of fantasy Dots.

These were fussy additions. Likewise, the video montage on the blank-canvas screen during the finale, depicting the cast in rehearsal, came off like artists patting themselves on the back. There's enough going on in the material without this sort of thing.

And there was enough going right at Ravinia to compensate for such quibbles. It's one thing to hear songs on the rare order of "Color and Light," "Finishing the Hat," "Lesson No. 8" and "Move On," each refracting an aspect--and cost--of the act of artistic creation. It's another to hear them under the baton of musical director Paul Gemignani, as good as they come, and a 31-piece orchestra. With a full complement of strings the simplest lyric expression, such as McDonald singing the line "I love your painting," becomes intensely moving.

Cerveris' Seurat was technically formidable, though in terms of character detail, only about two-thirds of the way there. Some of the comedy in Price's ensemble arrived on the obvious side. The best and subtlest of the featured cast members: Johanna McKenzie Miller as Celeste 1 and Stephen Wallem as Louie, the baker.

The first few productions I saw of "Sunday" seemed to stumble every time the musical bore down hard on the idea that art isn't easy, and artists are tough to live with, and the innovative ones draw sycophants, detractors and flies in roughly equal measure. Lately, thanks to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre revival two years ago (director Gary Griffin's peak achievement to date) and now, this one, my resistance points regarding "Sunday" are fading.

In one lyric, Seurat is entreated to "give us more to see." Through hits and flops, high-dives and walks in the park, no one writing music for the stage has given us more to hear than Sondheim.

 


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