REVIEW: Sunday in the Park with George (Porchlight)

 

Porchlight’s ‘Sunday’ doesn’t quite put it together

 

Cast of Sunday in the Park With George

   
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Sunday in the Park with George
   
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Directed by L. Walter Stearns, music direction by Eugene Dizon
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"His touch is too deliberate, somehow."

That lyric, from the 1984 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, might well describe Porchlight Music Theatre Director L. Walter Stearns’ uneven revival, which somehow fails to connect the dots of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

Sondheim James Lapine’s imagined backstory behind 19th-century painter Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" (now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago) has only a tangential relationship to the real biography of the groundbreaking neoimpressionist whose early death deprived the art world of what surely would have been a brilliant career. Instead it concentrates on the troublesome issues of balance between art and life, work and relationships, ambition and practicality.

The artist calls for "Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance" — elements that can make or break any work of art. This imbalanced production falters under too much design and not enough tone.

Hidden behind the scenes, Music Director Eugene Dizon on piano and his orchestra — Carolyn Berger, violin; Michelle Lewis, cello; Allison Richards, viola; Patrick Rehker and Derek Weihofen, woodwinds; and Jennifer Ruggieri, harp — do a stellar job with the music. Unfortunately, many of the singers don’t measure up.

Amanda Sweger‘s massive backdrop and Liviu Pasare‘s distracting video projections overwhelm the small stage and the cast as well.

Brandon Dahlquist ably captures George’s sensitivity and absorption, with an expressive face that suggests the real Seurat’s soulful looks and a fine tenor. Yet too often he’s obscured behind the scrim or facing away from the audience. (John Francisco will take this role for the final three weekends of the run.) Seurat’s painting may be the subject of the play, but we really don’t need to see it all the time. An empty stretcher would have conveyed the idea of the work just as well and allowed us to see the actor’s face.

On the other hand, Jess Godwin’s passion is all in her face and rarely in her singing. Playing George’s lover, Dot, the animated and lovely Godwin displays an almost palpable yearning for the artist. The slender redhead bears no resemblance to the Seurat’s actual mistress, Madeleine Knobloch (the buxom subject of "Young Woman Powdering Herself"), which doesn’t matter, but her voice often sounds as thin as her figure, and that does.

Several members of the supporting cast put in excellent performances, however. Sara Stern is superb as George’s peevish, elderly mother. Her fabulous version of "Beautiful" is the highlight of Act I. Sarah Hayes and Daniel Waters do a hilarious job as the unhappy American tourists. Bil Ingraham and Heather Townsend are aptly haughty as the successful painter Jules and his wife, Yvonne, delivering tittering pronouncements on George’s work in "No Life," and Michael Pacas makes a wonderfully wry and full-voiced boatman.

The second act, which jumps forward to a modern artist, also named George — a fictional great-grandson of Seurat — seems much stronger, as if the cast and crew felt more comfortable in the 20th century. Dahlquist, now fresh-faced and beardless, is out in front here. But Godwin, now portraying George’s grandmother, sings "Children and Art" so softly she’s nearly inaudible.

Sunday is one of Sondheim’s more challenging musicals. Porchlight would have done much better to concentrate on the essentials of light and harmony instead of reaching for the heavy design elements that weigh down this production.

"Art isn’t easy, no matter how you look at it."

   
   
Rating:★★
   
  

Benefit Concert

Porchlight Music Theatre hosts a benefit concert, "By Popular Demand," at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 11, at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago (map).

In Act I, singers Jayson Brooks, Sean Effinger-Dean, Nick Foster, Jess Godwin, Lina Kernan, Ryan Lanning, Bethany Thomas, Joseph Tokarz and others perform. At intermission, the audience votes to determine who’ll return to sing again in Act II.

Tickets are $40. Two votes are included with your admission. Each additional vote costs $1 and supports new talent, new works and new productions at Porchlight.

Review – “Songs for a New World”

from-left-jess-godwin-alanda-coon-michael-arthur-and-jays-small.jpgProduction: Songs for a New World

Producers: Bohemian Theatre Ensemble 

Whazzit About? Songs for a New World is a musical review with a very loosely-connected theme, first performed in 1995, featuring songs written by young composer Jason Robert Brown, a precursor to his highly-acclaimed epic musical Parade. Bohemian Theatre first presented this show in late 2007, selling out its last two weeks.  Because of this success, they have (thankfully) reprised the production at the Theater Building for a limited run.    

Strengths: Chicago has always been a great musical-theater town, and this fact is largely evident in this show – the four young performers (Jayson Books, Michael Arthur, Jess Godwin and Alanda Coon) offer up soaring vocals and dead-on ensemble singing.  Jayson Brooks (seen recently as Colehouse Walker in Porchlight’s award-winning Ragtime) is at his best in the energetic second act opener “King of the World”.  Mezzo-soprano Jess Godwin brings sweetness and vulnerability to the lovely “I’m Not Afraid”.  Michael Arthur brings an edginess to the contemplative “She Cries”.  And Alana Coon champions the show with the most variant musical styles, from the punchy “Surabaya-Santa” to the determined “The Flagmaker 1775”.  Though all have great solo voices, the talents of musical director Andra Velis Simon are apparent in the impeccable blend of their group vocals, many of the chords are tight, with dissonant intervals.  In addition to the vocal work, the show looks great, with the set built with wooden ramps and floors, and interwoven slats as a backdrop, giving one the feeling of being inside the hull of a wooden ship.    

Weaknesses: There is little here not to like.  As one of my favorite Chicago theatre critics, John Olson of TalkinBroadway.com, so eloquently put it: “The performances only disappoint in that there still seems to be not enough time to hear each of the four performers sing as much as we’d like. With voices like these in performers who can act the heck of our Brown’s character-driven songs, it’s tempting to wonder why we need dialogue in musical theater at all and to resent it for taking time away from hearing more of these four in their previous musical theater work.”.

Summary: Thankfully for Chicago, Boho has reprised this gem of a show, following their sold-out run at Heartland Studio.  No, it’s not an evening of revelatory aha moments, but the glorious voices and performances of the character-driven material makes for a wonderful evening.  Recommended.

Rating: «««½ 

 Personnel and Show Times

Composer:

Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elizabeth Margolius
Music Director: Andra Velis Simon
Musicians: Kevin Brown, Sean Burke, Nick Sula
Set Designer: John Zuiker
Lights: Julian Pike
Costumes: Theresa Ham
Stage Manager: Meg Love
   
Featuring: Jayson Brooks   (Man 1)
  Michael Arthur   (Man 2)
  Jess Godwin   (Woman 1)
  Alanda Coon   (Woman 2)
   
Dates: Through February 10, 2008
Location: Theatre Building (map)
Show Times: Thursday through Saturday, 8:00pm.  Sunday matinee at 2pm. 

(From Left) Alanda Coon, Michael Arthur, and Jess Godwin