Saturday, February 23, 2008

All it has to be is good

I saw Sunday in the Park With George a few weeks ago, and I'd like to say I was politely waiting until its official opening to post my review -- but the truth is I've been too busy to put my thoughts into words, and I didn't even know when it was opening until I saw the headline on the NYT website this morning. I try not to read anyone else's reviews until I've composed my own, so since I want to hear what other people said, it's time I told you about my own trip to La Grande Jatte.

Although I have watched the taped-for-television version of the original production so often I can play it in my head, I'd never seen Sunday in live performance before -- it's relatively rarely performed, as Sondheim fans know, because the technical demands are extensive and specific. You might have the cast, the musicians and the desire to do the work, but if you can't replicate the look of Seurat's paintings (not just A Sunday Afternoon..., but also Bathers at Asnieres and Young Woman Powdering Herself) in some way, you don't have a show. So the big buzz around this production was that the director and creative team had found a way to make Sunday work on a smaller scale, in a space as tiny and intimate as the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre. Where the original production made innovative use of scenery -- painted drops on flies, flats that pop up from trap doors, cut-out figures toted on and off the stage by the actors -- this production employs projections and animation to make Seurat's work come to life on the stage. The result is truly dazzling. So dazzling, in fact, that at times it overwhelms the actors, the music, the story being told. The creators have done an amazing job putting the technical elements together; unfortunately, it seems like they did it without always knowing where to draw the line. (So to speak.)

At the performance I saw -- the second preview -- there were a few issues with body mics. Jenna Russell's crackled as she applied her makeup during "Color and Light," and Michael Cumpsty's dropped out altogether in one dialogue scene. They were fixed eventually, and I assume all such issues were ironed out by opening night, but I mention it because it had a detrimental effect on the show and on the audience, as you know if you've ever been to a show where something similar happened (and who hasn't?). As soon as you're aware that a microphone is malfunctioning, the spell of the show is broken, and instead of watching George and Dot as they go about their lives, you're watching two actors doing a scene and anxiously hoping that they'll get through it without any more embarrassing issues. This show is utterly dependent on technology for much more than just amplification. The deftness with which said technology is deployed is remarkable -- but as long as I was thinking, "Wow, look how perfectly they've timed this animation! I wonder what that scrim looks like to the actors? I wonder what they'd do if something threw off their timing? I wonder what rehearsals were like?..." I wasn't really watching the show. There were more specific drawbacks to this approach as well: at times, the animation dulled a setup for a joke (the Soldiers are much less funny than they were in 1984, when Robert Westenberg was toting around a life-sized cutout). Other times it was simply distracting -- the rowers gliding along the back wall are neat, but shouldn't I be looking at the actors talking downstage? After everything we'd seen in Act One (and compared to the whizzy staging of "Putting It Together," on which more in a moment), George's Chromolume (number seven!) demonstration was oddly underwhelming, which got Act Two off to a shaky start -- Wait, you wondered, Is he supposed to be a lousy artist? Is that the joke? And "Putting it Together" wasn't the whirlwind of activity I expected; the number went on too long, and the focus seemed to be on the cute animation rather than on George's inner conflict. When George was setting up cardboard cutouts of himself, the symbolism was clear; when George is pouring champagne for a remarkably lifelike projection of himself, it's hard to know how to react, aside from "Ooooh!" (By the end of the number, the woman behind me was actually counting the Georges out loud.) With all that going on, I was hardly even aware that the real, live George was up there somewhere, singing about losing his concentration and compromising his vision.

I don't mean to be so thoroughly negative. Strip away all that gingerbread and you will find a solid cast performing a beautiful, deeply moving work of musical theatre, one that isn't performed nearly often enough. The British accents are jarring at first, especially since most of the cast is American (and recognizably so if you see much theatre). It's just one more detail to distance you from the work itself; you're always aware that you're watching The Acclaimed British Production of Sunday in the Park With George. But the two leads have been doing these roles for so long that asking them to adopt a new accent would surely have been a mistake, so perhaps that couldn't be helped. And I was very taken with Jenna Russell's Dot -- she found a way to make the character vivid and compelling without aping any of Bernadette Peters's choices, and the accent provided a touch of the vulnerability and spunk that Bernadette conveyed in other ways. Russell has brought out a different Dot, one very worth getting to know. Her singing is lovely and clear, and she finds the maximum impact in every one of Dot's songs. And in Act Two, her Marie is just as masterful as Bernadette's, and relevatory in its own way. Hers is the only performance that made me want to return to the material and look at it again, to see the things I hadn't looked at till now. (I'm sorry. I can't help myself.)

The supporting cast members are much less groundbreaking and, for the most part, much less at home with the script. The James Lapine dialogue that sounded so quirky and poetic in that original production sounds awkward and amateurish now. (Just like it does on the page -- but that's a phenomenon I'm hoping to explore in a follow-up post.) George's mother (Mary Beth Peil) is less affecting; the Soldier (Santino Fontana) is less menacing; Mr. and Mrs. are curiously unfunny; the Boatman (Alexander Gemignani) is embarrassing. (And what happened to the scene Mr. and Mrs. and the Boatman have together? I love that scene!) Only Jessica Molaskey and Michael Cumpsty, as Yvonne and Jules, made an impact as great as their predecessors. The ensemble comes together beautifully in their choral numbers, however; their performance of "Sunday" is as reverent and gorgeous as the orchestral accompaniment is thin. (We'll get to that.)

The biggest surprise for me was that I wasn't crazy about Daniel Evans's take on George. As played by Mandy Patinkin -- and you know I am hardly the president of the Mandy Patinkin fan club -- George had a quiet intensity that made him seem worthy of all the attention he receives, from the characters and from us in the audience. He was mysterious and compelling and oddly attractive. Evans plays George with a twitchy, nervous energy, making him almost childlike and, honestly, rather off-putting. He's not a person I would want to get to know, and he doesn't seem to match the things that are said about him -- he's bizarre, certainly, but is he fixed and cold? does he really burn you with his eyes? The genius of Bernadette Peters's contributions to the original production was that she made Dot, the entirely fictional romantic foil and plot device, a fully-fleshed character and a figure to equal George. The surprise of this production is that George's mistress seems more central than George himself -- I felt at times like this show should be called Sunday in the Park With Dot.

I liked Evans much better as 1984 George in Act Two -- better, even, than Mandy Patinkin in the same role. Patinkin's mannered work felt slightly out of place in what is supposed to be a "contemporary" setting, but Evans seems more comfortable once he trades his false beard for jeans. This was the first time I felt I really "got" that second act. Perhaps that's because I'm older now myself, and facing some of the same questions and doubts as George. Or perhaps it was because Dot's return seemed so crucial in this production; she was the emotional center of both acts, and it seemed like only she could bring it all home. And she did.

Knowing the limitations of Studio 54, we were wise enough to spring for really good seats, dead center in the orchestra section. Overpriced, but in that house it's the only way to fly. Of course, it's not really the "orchestra" section, since the (puny) orchestra is installed in a box overhead. They played well, but there's only so much five people can do. The music never swells as it should. And you know those trumpet fanfares that punctuate the score? It has always seemed obvious to me that they're inspired by the trumpeter visible in the background of the painting. This production is afraid we won't recognize that without help, so it accompanies every trumpet arpeggio with a cute flourish of animation against the back wall. Which I could live with, if the instrument we were hearing was an actual trumpet. But it's a saxophone. That sort of corner-cutting might have been necessary at the Menier, but this is Broadway, and I think I'm a little insulted.


timothynicholas said...

I think George's production is rushed, spontaneous, messy, full of mistakes and has absolutely no plot. However this appears to give it a very flawed human feel.

When so many productions are so refined and over processed the characters become distant and fake.

This piece is perhaps demonstrating that sometimes life is like a production. And the impressions that people are given are often fake.

I think George is trying to express to Dot that he is not going to tell her what she wants to hear and give her a fake over processed impression.

George is trying to show that he’s an ordinary human that makes many mistakes and is trying to improve on them as best he can.

I believe it isn’t even a production. It’s a movie trailer for an upcoming production that gives us a preview of what might be in the final production.

I think George has been harshly criticized in previous roles and didn’t want to be pigeon holed and has churned this movie trailer out in attempt to give his audience a breath of fresh air.

Anonymous said...

I think timothynicolas has produced a movie trailer for an upcoming production that gives us a preview of what might be in the final production.

floretbroccoli said...

I found the projections lovely, charming, and fascinating. I felt, though, that they tended to result in the entire play being blocked close to the edges of the stage. Since there was nothing on which to project in the middle of the stage, the middle of the stage remained empty too much of the time.