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: Blue Door (Victory Gardens)

biograph-marquee

Victory Gardens presents:

Blue Door

 

by Tanya Barfield
directed by Andrea J. Dymond
through February 28th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer-nominated Blue Door is mired in the heaviness of academia and leavened by the poetic treatment of events so horrific they seem to defy the very beauty inherent to poetry. That dichotomy makes for a frustrating evening at the Victory Gardens Biograph.

bluedoor On the one hand, Blue Door is a densely packed introspection into history rendered dusty dry by the cerebral self-examination of a mathematician protagonist. On the other hand, Barfield has penned a devastating, multi-dimensional drama that could be a companion piece to the photographic history of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary.”) Allen and Barfield have no connection that I know of, other than each mined art from the same harsh historical foundation. And if you’ve seen Allen’s work, you may well find it rushing up through your memory in the final, harrowing moments of Blue Door.

Those moments are tough and necessary, arriving as Ivy League math professor Lewis (Bruce A. Young) finally faces the demons that have destroyed his marriage, his career and his sense of self. In the 90 minutes leading up to that emotional breakthrough, Barfield loads her two-hander with a multi-generational litany of sorrows. Wife gone, career in tatters, Lewis finds his home filled with ghosts. Beginning before the Civil War with Lewis’ great-great grandmother and continuing through a family tree afflicted with tragic, strange fruit through decade upon decade, Lewis confronts the woes of a Job. His debilitating personal history is by no means exaggerated – click on any decent U.S. history site and you’ll find many a real-life story that’s far worse. But compressed into a one-act play, Lewis’ family feels more representative than authentic, an overwhelmingly inclusive outline rather than an organically unfolding biography.

The other crucial problem lies with the exposition. It dominates. Andrea J. Dymond’s capable direction can’t change the imbalance of explanation outweighing action. Of course, Lewis’ ghosts are storytellers, so a degree of telling is inevitable. Even so, the drama loses urgency as recitations overshadow events. That’s a shame, because those ghosts – the great-grandfather born into slavery; the hobo grandfather whose life and death call to mind both Robert Earl Hayes and Emmett Till; the alcoholic father who beats his son bloody – are fascinating both as pages from history and as personal narratives. The other man in Lewis’ long night’s journey into day is his brother Rex, a drug addict whose failures provide a telling cracked-mirror image to Lewis’ successes. Lindsay Smiling portrays all of them (as well as Lewis’ great-great grandmother and his grandmother) with vibrancy that’s electric. He’s also cringe-inducing in his pin-point portrayal of race-based humiliation.

Blue%20doo Lewis, by contrast, is problematic, especially when he gets started on subjects such as “the psychological perception of time” as it applies to higher mathematics. He’s an academic, but by having him so often speak in the ultra-erudite language of the very well educated, Barfield leaches the story of some momentum.

The incidents of racism recounted from Lewis’ life – sparking unspoken unease at an otherwise all-white at a cocktail party, an assumption by whites that he’s an expert on racial matters – seem trivial when compared to what his forebears dealt with. It’s only gradually that Barfield unveils just how scarred her protagonist has been by his family history and other peoples’ reactions to the color of his skin. “No matter how many polysyllabic words come out of your mouth, no matter how many tweed suits you wear,” there will always be people harboring the suspicion that you stole those suits, Lewis bitterly notes.

Barfield employs humor to fine effect in the catalyst of Lewis’ crisis – when a student asks a question about Heidegger, Lewis thinks he’s been called a “house nigger.” Without that element of preposterousness , the professor’s lifetime-in-the-making predicament would be almost too depressing to contemplate. But such contemplation is crucial if “Never forget, never again” is ever to be anything more than a bumper sticker. Blue Door (the title comes from the great-great grandmother’s practice of painting the door blue in order to keep night terrors out and family spirits in) opens a portal to history. If only what we glimpsed there were more dramatically resonant and less like chapters in a text-book .

Rating: ★★½

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, continues through Feb. 28 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $20 – $48. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org or call 773/871-3000.

CREATIVE TEAM
Tanya Barfield (playwright), Charlie Cooper (light design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Liviu Pasare (video projections), Judith Lundberg (costume design), Michelle Medvin (stage manager)

CAST: Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Smiling

Review: Porchlight’s “Miracle on 34th Street”

A Retro Christmas Miracle

 

Porchlight Music Theatre presents:

Miracle on 34th Street

Adapted by Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder, Sill Severin and John Vreeke

Story by Valentine Davies
Screenplay by George Seaton
directed by
L. Walter Stearns
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET--Santa and Susan I have to admit to a bit of “Scrooge-ism” when it comes to the holiday season in America. The commercials, the billboards, the store windows dressed in fiberglass snow and plaid carolers when I am still finishing Halloween candy stuffed in the bottom desk drawer- you get the idea. I managed to get into the spirit in spite of myself. I got a visit from a little angel in the form of my niece Alexandria. She is a very precocious seven years old who likes spiders. Porchlight Theatre’s publicity for Miracle on 34th Street stated that this was the perfect first theater experience for children and would become a holiday tradition. I am happy to say that the publicity was right.

This production of Miracle on 34th Street is from the Porchlight Music Theatre Company. They are known for classic productions as well as new interpretations of musicals. This is already a classic film and now it has been excellently translated to the stage. The moment that Kris Kringle’s sleigh appears on the stage is when the magic begins. A veritable toyland pops out of Santa’s big red sack and performs to start the play. We are then told that this Santa is a lucky replacement for the other guy who showed up drunk. The twist is that this Santa believes that he is the real thing. It is a tale that we all know from afternoons around the television or at the repertory movie house.

Christa Buck plays the cynical 1940’s career woman Doris Walker. She is all business and doesn’t have time for the fantasy that is Christmas. She also has little patience for the complications of romance that shows up in the form of Fred Gailey played by Karl Hamilton. They both seem to have stepped out of a Technicolor production. The entire cast is a step back in time and that is perfect for this production. The cynicism of Doris Walker and her daughter Susan is born out of divorce and abandonment issues. That is my modern interpretation but the portrayals are embodied with the post-war innocence of the 1940’s. Somehow everything works out in America if you only believe. It’s a beautiful idea whose time is coming around again. The part of Susan Walker is played by Laney Kraus-Taddeo. She is another talented product of the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. Ms. Kraus-Taddeo doesn’t hit any false notes or project any of the treacle that is the risk of any child actors. All of the children in this production are a delight to watch. The play makes room for a child in the audience to talk to Santa on stage. It was a funny moment with an untrained participant who asked for Christmas lipstick. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that is but Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle played right along with jolly humor.

I have to say that it was the performance of Jim Sherman that really put me in the Christmas spirit. He has the sparkle and the charm that – for me – embody Santa Claus. He wears a suit that is more in the tradition of Father Christmas or Sinter Klass from the Netherlands. Even when he was clad in layperson’s attire he looked like Santa. I also enjoyed the character of Mr. Macy played by Chuck Sisson. I’m a girl who grew up on Mr. Drysdale, Mr. Mooney, and Thurston Howell III. There is a certain carriage and technique to carrying off the bluster of such a character in my opinion and Mr. Sisson has it much to my enjoyment.

The entire cast is a joy to watch in Miracle on 34th Street. The supporting villain character of Mr. Sawyer is played with relish by Rus Rainear. Like the movie, Mr. Sawyer is a ferret-like guy who almost kills Christmas while in cahoots with the ambitious District Attorney played by Steve Tomlitz.

Suspense! Romance! Knee Slapping Laughs! It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Most importantly, it passed the “Alexandria Test”. My niece Alexandria was enchanted the moment the action began. That is saying something considering that we had been to Uncle Fun and bought a “can of salted nuts” which contained three fake snakes. Lexie was all about the snakes until Kris Kringle and the music began. She also got to take a picture with Santa on the stage after the play that was a big thrill. “Auntie Kathy! I got to see Santa Claus and be on the stage!”

You have to bring your own camera and resist the urge to want to sit on Jim Sherman’s lap yourself. I’m telling you, the guy took me back to 1965 when I really believed.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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