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Review - Sunday in the Park With George & Flora, The Red Menace

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The second act of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 musical, Sunday In The Park With George is centered on a then-contemporary artist/inventor named George who has created a series of machines called chromolumes, which electronically fill rooms with color and light. His latest, "Chromolume #7" is intended to present a variation on themes inspired from Georges Seurat's revolutionary work of pointillism "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-86), the creation of which is the subject of the musical's first act. When a technical glitch short circuits the machine and causes a temporary delay in the chromolume's premiere presentation, George sheepishly explains to those gathered, "No electricity, no art."

A contemporary of Seurat criticizes his work as being "mechanical" in the musical's first act, but that slight seems humorously short-sighted in Sam Buntrock's new production. The British director, who originated this mounting at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, uses his expertise in computer generated imagery to mechanically recreate the painting from initial sketches to finished piece. In a sense this new production, emphasizing the musical's theme of the ever-increasing collaboration between art and science, is made possible by a modern day descendant of the chromolume that not only projects Seraut's work onto the white canvas of the bare set, but, as the story-telling requires, animates additions and subtractions in a manner that gives us peeks at both the artist's sketchbook and his imagination actively at work. And though the projections, designed by Timothy Bird and The Knifedge Creative Network, provide a natural link between the two acts through technology that wasn't available when the show was first written, Buntrock has the sensitivity to never let it overwhelm the rest of the production. The actors, the words and the music are still in the forefront.

Despite the musical complexities of Sondheim's score (unfortunately not completely explored here due to the limits of a threadbare 5-piece orchestra playing Jason Carr's new orchestrations) and the trademark tricky intelligence of his lyrics, the major theme behind his and bookwriter Lapine's work is fairly simple. 19th Century Seraut, who died at 31 and never sold a painting in his lifetime, was a non-communicative loner who nevertheless was creatively energized by doing the kind of work that made him happy, disregarding the ridicule of his colleagues and the cries for attention from his lover, Dot. 20th Century George is the hot new thing in the art world, partially due to his networking skills and likeable personality, but he feels pressured to continually give his funders what they want. Georges' simple need for paint and canvas, coupled with his lack of concern for his commercial failure, gives him more freedom and self-satisfaction than the popular George whose expensive pieces lock him into churning out pieces that impress his patrons. Georges, in the staccato "Color and Light" feverishly pokes exacting spots of color onto his canvas with a single-minded seriousness. Similar staccato phrases are later heard in "Putting It Together," (the two songs match as a melody/counter-melody) when George uses that same single-minded seriousness to schmooze at a cocktail gathering full of people who can help advance his career, climaxing the exhilaratingly satirical scene with the comic observation, "art isn't easy."

Daniel Evans, who originated the two roles in the London production, beautifully displays the dichotomy of the two artists, helping to strengthen the bonds between the two acts. His Seraut seems almost too cold and emotionally distant at first, but in his moments alone - particularly the wisps of joy that emerge through the contemplative "Finishing The Hat" - we can feel his misunderstood soul. While 19th Century Georges never takes a night off to socialize, 20th Century George makes a career of it, and while Evans slickly glides through the cocktail crowd of check-writers he still communicates the character's unease under the mask of charm. His second act George is what his first act Georges might have been if he had tried selling himself instead of his art.

Also a London import, Jenna Russell is quite adorable, funny and very touching as the ever-ignored Dot, but her extraordinary work comes as George's wheelchair-bound grandmother, Marie. With her mental facilities fading, she placidly sings a still and serene "Children and Art," reminding her childless grandson that these are the only two legacies worth leaving behind.

There are fine performances from the supporting cast, including Michael Cumpty's erudite, but well-meaning fellow artist, Jules and Jessica Molaskey as his less sensitive wife. Alexander Gemignani is rock-solid as the testy sailor in act one and George's harried technician in the second half. Mary Jane Peil is especially effective as Georges' caustic mother, who nevertheless regrets her inability to understand what her son has grown up to be.

Though generally regarded as one of musical theatre's landmark works, many find the second act of Sunday In The Park With George extraneous. That misconception is handily disproved in this beautiful and moving production.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans; Bottom: Alison Horowitz, Jessica Molaskey, Drew McVety, Brynn O'Malley, Jessica Grove, Daniel Evans, Michael Cumpsty and Jenna Russell

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She never saw the show during its brief Broadway run, but my mother always enjoyed it when I would play my original cast album of Kander and Ebb's first Broadway collaboration, Flora, The Red Menace. She didn't like the title, though, and for a good reason. Born in 1916 and spending her teenage years and early adulthood in the 1930s, my mom was a radical leftist who met my father at a Halloween fundraiser for an organization that thought Communism was the way to get America out of the Depression. Now, she didn't throw Molotov cocktails like Mary Louise Wilson or try and convince innocents to sign up as party members like Bob Dishy in the 1965 musical which earned 19-year-old Liza Minnelli a Tony Award for playing the young girl who discovers love and politics while belting out "Sing Happy." No, mom fought the people's fight through writing political poetry and her gig singing new works by such notables as Marc Blitzstein and Woody Guthrie with The American People's chorus. (My dad, by the way, wasn't especially political. He was just at the party to meet girls.)

I bring this up because I'm anxiously looking forward to seeing the Opening Doors Theatre Company's new concert production of Flora, The Red Menace, which opened last night at The Duplex and continues tonight and March 2nd & 3rd. This is the company that dared to bring back Bring Back Birdie as their premiere endeavor, followed by It's a Bird... It's A Plane... It's Superman! and the 50th Anniversary (and first time ever) revival of Whoop Up! Although I missed the latter two, I had a great time at their Birdie revival and am also clearing my schedule for their June production of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public.

Now, The Duplex's cabaret stage is small, so don't expect a big chorus and fancy production values. But I'm certain you can expect a talented and enthusiastic cast excited to bring this rarely revived gem back to New York.


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