10 August 2019
to 10 August 2019
Geelong: 15–17 August
Melbourne: 21–24 August
|Nick Simpson-Deeks, Vidya Makin. "Sunday in the Psrk with George".. Photo by Jodi Hutchinson|
"White. A blank page or canvas."
The cliche of an artist opening a work of art by contemplating a space of nothing should feel as condescending as it is – but it doesn't. Bloody Sondheim; even his most indulgent work feels real.
Sunday in the Park with George is Stephen Sondheim's 1985 personal plea for theatre-goers to understand the process and importance of art. It's the sixth show Melbourne-based independent Sondheim-only company Watch This have brought us and one that looks at the work with their own perspective.
The original production starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, with the book by James Lapine. It won Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is especially well known because it was filmed and released on home video (it's easy to find in YouTube; it's awesome). It was the show that Sondheim was never going to make because he declared he was quitting theatre following the heartbreak-cum-disaster of his Merrily We Roll Along, which closed after 16 Broadway performances in 1981. (If you haven't seen the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, it's on Netflix; it's also awesome.)
Sunday is an imagination of artist George Seurat in the two years he was painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) in Paris, and his great grandchild George's reimagining of the work 100 years later with the super-cool computerised art of the 1980s.
It's a work that can feel difficult to sink into. In act one, the stories and characters have limited connections; there are discussions about pointillism, colour and art theory; and the protagonist is difficult to like as he connects more with a dog in the park than with his mother or his pregnant lover and model, Dot.
But even the best-worst name pun ever – his painting is a series of dots – is overcome as the act ends with an ensemble number that's as affecting as anything Sondheim has written. It brings all the disparate elements together musically and dramatically with a demonstration of "order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony" that can't explain why it pokes emotions that you may not have known were there.
With a orchestra of four – four! –, Ned Wright-Smith's musical direction and Dominic Woodhead's orchestration focus on the transcending dissonance to harmony and supporting the singers to find the emotion inherent in every note.
Watch This don't have the resources to create the sort of design that productions of Sunday are known for, but Sarah Tulloch's design (with Rob Sowinski's lighting) looks at sections of the painting as it develops and has lots of fun with the 1980's version. And Rhiannon Irving's costumes let the characters feel like they really did come off the painting as the fabric is also coloured with dots.
Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares ensure that character leads everything on the stage and that the performers let the characters feel personal. This production isn't a deconstruction of a man able to spend his days making art that he thinks will change the world. It's not about the finished piece. It's about what he leaves out of the canvas (score/book/review), what he changes, and what he distorts to fit his idea of perfection.
Representation is far more than being peeved because your image is out of proportion.
The gaze of an artist rarely reflects reality.
As George's model, Dot is as much inspiration to him as she is irrelevant. He might love her but is far more passionate about her standing still or letting him finish that darn hat. Vidya Makan shows how easy it was for George to choose her, but she is confident enough to know that she can't get lost in her love for George. She doesn't resort to spite and knows that she's making the best choices for her, even if they hurt.
However, a production of this musical rests with George and George, who are played by the same person. The Georges aren't easy men to like unless you love them. Nick Simpson-Deek's George is personal. He holds George 1's emotions so close that George barely knows they are there and George 2 is tightly wound and determined but open to being so much more. As he holds back the emotions, his performance shines as he lets the music and song show everything that George 1 would never say and what George 2 learns to express.
We sing what we can't say; that's how great musicals work. When George and Dot sing, we see who they really are; we see the flecks of light and dark. And parasols.
Watch This don't make us stand in the middle of the gallery and look at the work of a "genuis". This Sunday in the Park with George moves us to the corners and behind the crowds where the view isn't as clear and perfect. It's a production for us and for now.
They open tonight in Geelong and this weekend might be your only chance to see it because their Melbourne season is all but sold out because Sondheim fans know not to miss it.