BWW Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Jam Factory T.O.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical inspired by the pointillist painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", has always felt to me like a you-had-to-be-there musical. Its debut cast featured Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in roles that were written to the actors' vocal abilities and dramatic personalities. The script won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare accomplishment for a musical, and Sondheim chose to name his books after lines from the first-act solo "Finishing the Hat": Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. Yet since 1985, SUNDAY IN THE PARK has been rarely produced. A successful West-End run in 2005 transferred to a moderately successful Broadway run in 2008. Jake Gyllenhal, of all people, took on the leading role in 2017 for a run that was limited but that someone evidently believed deserved a soundtrack recording (it did not).
SUNDAY IN THE PARK has not aged especially well. Its vision of the artist-as-god heaps too much praise on the sulky boy with the beard, by which I mean Mr Sondheim. It is a bit ageist, a tad misogynistic (George's lover, Dot, applies makeup while he paints a canvas; her body, evidently, is her art. Ew.)
So SUNDAY IN THE PARK was a bold choice for Eclipse Theatre Company, which specialises in site-specific musical concerts with a sort-of unfinished, casual vibe. The site in this case is Jam Factory T.O., a rustic, charming events space off the Don Valley Parkway near Dundas East. The Jam Factory invites not the nervous perfectionism that led the composer to write a staccato 'pointillist score', but a different artistic vision, one inspired by the show's themes of relaxation and rest. It is less about the divine process of making art and more about the Sundays themselves, a time to take a deep breath, go sailing, see a musical.
Evan Buliung stars as George, the introverted painter. Buliung is best-known for his work at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and in big-budget Mirvish musicals, but he transitions to the wooden rafters of the Jam Factory gracefully. He is a perfect George, soft-spoken and distant, with a voice that ranges from delicate to booming. He is matched, or perhaps surpassed, by his co-star Tess Benger, a relative up-and-comer. Benger radiates warmth; her performance is imbued with incredible skill and charisma, and her first-act duet with Buliung, "Colour and Light", brings the show to a high that carries it through the rest of the evening. Even though the second act feels kind of rushed, kind of unnecessary, just knowing that Benger and Buliung will have another number together is enough to keep you going.
At each production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK, the abstract painter Lori Mirabelli stands just off-stage with a canvas and brushes. While Buliung mimics painting, Mirabelli actually paints; she paints, in her words, "with George", with the music, with the show. It's a nice touch. I don't believe George when he says he lives through his paintings; I don't believe Stephen Sondheim when he implies that artists are like God. But I do believe that art is wonderful, that creation is wonderful, and that watching an artist paint while another artist sings, while another artist mimes going fishing, is a lovely way to spend a Sunday, or any day.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE runs through 8 March at Jam Factory T.O., 2 Matilda St, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz