For several magical moments at the conclusion of the first act of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's superb “Sunday in the Park with George,” everything 19th century French painter Georges Seurat strove for in his art comes together in Stephen Sondheim's music.
The leitmotifs, dissonance and staccato rhythms heard throughout the act give way to the sumptuous “Sunday,” a celebration of nature's beauty that begins as a whisper and crescendos to a glorious refrain that sends a shiver up the spine. The number brought tears to my eyes. Judging from the quiet sniffles from fellow audience members, I wasn't the only one.
In that first act finale — reprised at the end of act 2 — the principles of design, composition, balance and harmony coalesce in a shimmering work of art that stands as a defining moment in director Gary Griffin's exquisite revival. It's a beautifully sung show the success of which owes as much to Brad Haak's music direction and conductor Ryan T. Nelson as it does to Griffin.
For the second time in as many years, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has opened its main stage season with a Sondheim revival. For the second time in as many years, Griffin has helmed the production. Now as then, the result is stellar.
Like Seurat's painting, Griffin's revival is fresh, elegant and carefully detailed. It boasts a splendid cast comprised of local favorites and led by potent principles Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack, CST newcomers with Broadway and West End credits. Accompanying the ensemble is a chamber orchestra, whose 11 members play in a loft high above the stage.
The blue-chip creative team includes projection designer Mike Tutaj, who created the ever-evolving digital backdrop, set designer Kevin Depinet and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, who recreates in detail the fashions favored by the middle-class Parisians who populate Seurat's pointillist masterwork “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
The painting — which has resided at the Art Institute of Chicago since 1924 — served as inspiration for Sondheim and book writer James Lapine's fictionalized account of its creation. But the 1984 musical is about more than Seurat's process. It's about obsession and the struggle to achieve one's artistic vision. It's about love and the difficulty of connecting with another person while consumed by a singular pursuit. And it is about the artist who spends so much time observing life, he neglects to live his own.
Set in 1884 Paris, the first act centers on the creation of the masterwork and the simultaneous dissolution of the relationship between the abrupt, obsessive Georges (fine work by Danieley), and his gingery mistress/model/muse Dot (the dynamic Cusack, whose lush, lovely voice is matched by her commanding stage presence).
From the moment we meet them in a suburban Paris park, the strain on their relationship is apparent. He's short-tempered and driven, so emotionally entangled in his work he has nothing left for Dot. She's frustrated and desperate for a more tangible emotional connection from a man unable to provide it.
Meanwhile, Sondheim and Lapine introduce us to the subjects of Georges' painting, the friends, acquaintances and strangers brought vibrantly to life by a talented cast that gives dimension to these two-dimensional figures. A pair of shopgirls played by Rachel Cantor and Elizabeth Lanza vie for the attentions of Travis Taylor's soldier, while married servants Franz (Derek Hasenstab) and Frieda (Heidi Kettenring) sneak away for extramarital assignations.
Georges' more successful colleague Jules (Sean Fortunato) and his wife Yvonne (McKinley Carter) arrive at his studio to offer tepid encouragement, while Dot takes up with a baker (Michael Aaron Lindner), an artist whose creations serve a practical purpose.
The second act unfolds 100 years later, at the premiere of the latest light sculpture by Georges' great-grandson George (Danieley), a successful but creatively adrift artist whose “Chromolume #7” is inspired by his great grandfather's iconic work. It's the latest in a series that has become. as one critic explains, “more and more about less and less.” George's success, however, has trapped him and smothered his instincts, which his elderly grandmother Marie (Cusack) — Dot's daughter — insists he revive with a visit to Paris.
In a production defined by winning performances, Cusack is a force to be reckoned with. She demonstrates as much in her poignant second act ballad “Children and Art” and in “Move On,” her anthemic, showstopping duet with Danieley. As for Danieley, his “Putting it Together” is a tour-de-force. But it's his quietly revealing turn in “Finishing the Hat” — a touching reflection on the artist as outsider — that makes his performance memorable.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.