BWW Reviews: A Glorious SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

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As most Chicagoans know, Georges Seurat’s  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 is one of the signature Impressionist pieces held in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Directed by Gary Griffin, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Sunday in the Park With George” is a masterpiece in its own right.  An emotional tour de force, it’s the kind of don’t miss-production that theatergoers will be talking about for years to come.

 In a nut shell: the first act concerns the relationship between an artist named George(Jason Danieley) and his model/mistress Dot (Carmen Cusak). The artistic struggle to develop ones’ own artistic style and complete a masterpiece comes with a price. As he assembles his famous portrait, we see George is so focused on his work to a fault that his personal life suffers.

The second act concerns his great grandson (also and artist and played by Danieley). Like his great grandfather before him, the modern George also struggles with finding balance between art and relationships, but has the added challenge of having to maintain professional relationships in terms of finding funding for his art (something his great grandfather who was of independent means never had to do).  

Cusack possesses a set of pipes that just may very well rival Patti LuPone’s in turns of power and, because her approach to each song is so organic and of the moment,  her voice is an instrument that is an extension of her superb acting. Her Dot is fierce, passionate and somewhat wounded by previously relationships. As modern George’s wheelchair-bound grandmother Marie, Cusack is appropriately frail, but just as passionate.   

Danieley plays the part of an emotionally distant artist in the first act a bit too well. I didn’t really feel connected to his character until we were well into the first act. Conversely, I immediately identified with his modern George. Part of this is the material, of course. In the first act, George does a lot of musical muttering, whereas the second act gives Danieley much more opportunity to display his capable vocal prowess.

Overall, the second act is perhaps the biggest surprise. It often feels as if it is the weaker of the two acts in other productions; its existence merely a vehicle for the emotional show-stopper “Move On.” Danieley perfectly nails the exasperation of the juggling act that is the life of the modern artist with the frenzied “Putting It Together” and as George’s grandmother Marie, Cusack succinctly sums up the universe truth about the fragility of life and what’s really important with “Children and Art.” It’s themes echo those of “Beautiful” in the first act and instead of stealing focus from that song (and make no mistake, as George’s mother Linda Stephens’ performance of the first act number is very moving), Cusack’s performance expands on those same themes: things change but only family and art remain behind.     

If I have any minor quibbles, it is with Griffin’s decision to tweak the final visual tableau. Traditionally, the show starts and finishes with the artist and a blank canvas. The point being that while we see nothing, the artist recognizes it for what it truly is: a tool to explore infinite possibilities.

In this production, Griffin assembles the whole cast for one more take on the famous painting and instead of having the characters from the painting exit the stage as they usually do(leaving us with that blank canvas), they remain on stage.

While it may not sound like an earth-shattering alteration, it does steal some of the focus around the show’s final point and can be interpreted in several ways: The modern George is finally making peace, accepting and embracing with the family history he has been running away from, he (like his great grandfather before him) sees what isn’t there and draws inspiration from it, or (and this is the bleakest interpretation) the artist who couldn’t get past his own previous works to create something truly new is now also haunted by the legacy of art created by his great grandfather.

With so much on stage, it is both literally and figuratively hard to see the blank canvas. Where once there were infinite possibilities, we as an audience begin to draw conclusions.  

"Sunday in the Park with George" runs through Nov. 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier (600 E. Grand). Tickets, $48-$78. Call (312) 595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com 

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Misha Davenport Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer, blogger, critic and singer. He studied playwriting at Michigan State University under the late Arthur Athanason. He has been covering theater in the Windy City for more than a decade at the Chicago Sun-Times and currently as a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com. He sits on the board of the not-for-profit arts group Chicago Gay Men's Chorus and resides in Rogers Park, just steps away from the emerging theater district located there. He is a fierce advocate and lover of live theater from shows in 50-seat storefronts to big Broadway blockbusters.


 
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