At Jam Factory, a warm industrial space, Eclipse Theatre Company presents its staged concert performance of Sunday in the Park with George. Don’t let the “staged concert” fool you, this production is lush, atmospheric and captures—with stirring emotional force—the gentle brilliance of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) Pulitzer Prize winning work.
The story is a meditation on art and legacy, fashioned around a fictionalized version of George Seurat and the creation and impact of his most famous painting—A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. As George sketches people in the park, gathering details for his large canvas, he intrigues the locals and neglects his lover, Dot. Standing all day long in the hot sun, she models for him and is both frustrated and fascinated by his intense focus and peculiar vision.
The story and its characters spin around the central figure of George and his artistry, though he’s not the most interesting character. In the first act, he is our window onto the colourful locals who will play their own distinctive parts in his great work. As their flirtations and fights cause chaos around him, he must pull them all together into a calm and ordered depiction of beauty.
The second act jumps one hundred years into the future where we meet a new George, the great-grandson of Seurat and an artist in his own right, working on technically sophisticated light sculptures he calls “chromolumes.” His experiences rhyme with those of his ancestor—wrestling with the many aspects of art that overlap and conflict—the disruptive nature of innovation, the joyful yet alienating features of an artistic temperament, and the shrewd business of art as commerce.
As George, Evan Buliung has plenty of brooding presence and provides an endearingly sullen backdrop for the far more vibrant Dot. As the second act’s contemporary George, he’s less of a cad and a more compelling character in his own right. It is here that he, a George that exists across time, reaches the end of a century-spanning redemptive arc.
Dot is a burst of fresh air and sunshine in George’s obsessive funk. Tess Benger conveys her with giddy, playful affection. Dot also has ambition, teaching herself to read and making plans for a future that does not involve the emotionally unavailable George.
As a curt old woman who we eventually learn is George’s mother, Charlotte Moore commands the stage whenever she’s on it. Sometimes, just a searing look from her will do.
In her set, designer Michelle Bohn gives us a beige world of draped fabric and suspended parasols. This off-white pallet continues in costumes which tenderly suggest the period. Under Wendy Lundgren’s occasional bursts of coloured light, these fabrics shimmer and glow. For the modern-day second act, Bohn has the supporting characters in plain T-shirts with their character descriptions—like “Patron of the Arts” and “Her Friend”—which might be a playful nod towards the Harold Prince production of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim musical that preceded Sunday.
Director Evan Tsitsias’ staging is attentive to both the elegant spectacle and the more intimate character moments. Allyson McMackon’s movement direction helps to ensure the many figures on stage are never underused or forgotten, that the whole stage seems abuzz with subtle activity.
A live painting (by Lori Mirabelli) is created on stage during the performance. This bit of creative embellishment is compelling in its thematic significance and a fun contribution to the creative ambiance of this production.
As much as I love to peek past obstructions to follow action in unconventional venues, the seats here are quite small and packed too closely together. Most are on the same level as the playing area, so sight-lines are a concern, but mild discomfort is the primary drawback of this set-up.
Sunday in the Park with George does not deliver the instant gratification that characterizes most musical theatre. It demands concentration. There are some truly stirring melodies, though much of this musical’s power is cumulative. Like Seurat’s pointillist work: up close, the details seem frivolous, abstract, minute. Stepping back to appreciate it as a whole, the gestalt is deeply touching.