Sunday 29 January 2017

Sunday...with George entices and amuses
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together. 
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

The point of it all : Pointillism. A 19th Century paint-by-dots technique that even Van Gogh mimicked. When designed as music the technique is called punctualism. Individual notes that when totted together create an intimate if occasionally gnarled soundscape. Sunday In the Park With George is the musical collaboration of Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine focused on the French painter George Seurat. It could be subtitled "Portrait of the Artist as A Young Obsessive Compulsive". Only 25 at the time he started it, Seurat's iconic 10-foot-wide "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" is now in the proud possession of the Art Institute of Chicago.

After two years of struggle and some 60 draft sketches of folks dilly-dallying on Ilse Grande, all of this was brought vividly to life on canvas by Seurat. While conceiving and composing and refining pointillism that would become known as neo-impressionism, he struggled both artistically and personally. Was life to be the subjects he painted -- like his model and girlfriend named, a bit too cutely, Dot. Or is the act of painting just a medium, a means to understand and embrace the community who are the target audience of one's handiwork? Painting is work that creates a product. Audiences respond, humanly, to what paint-&-brush hath wrought. Where do these forces intersect in the creator's heart?

From the footlights :  Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony. These are the watchwords of George Seurat, his daily mantra to himself as he developed the craft of pointillism. Words that if applied to one's personal relationships -- analogously -- would not be bad values to include in the reach of one's personality. 

But for George Seurat (Brandyn Eddy) as imagined by Sondheim / Lapine, his love of paints and colour and canvas prevent him from requiting the passion Dot (Martha Ansfield-Scrase) has for him. The dramatic tension between them underscores the entire script, including her marrying the local baker and moving to America despite being pregnant with Seurat's love child.

Nazareth and their classic song "Love Hurts" could easily have been the show's anthem. Because the hurt of love is always and ever ripe fodder for drama. Add to Dot's pain and George's confusion some terrific tunesmithing by Sondheim and the result is an evening's outing utterly worth the effort and break from the reality-t.v. occurring second-by-second S. of 49.

What the show brings to the stage :  Director Ryan Mooney blocks and choreographs his 15 actors (in their 28 roles) well indeed to maximize the up-close-&-personal Jericho acting space. The subjects (objects?) of Seurat's magical Ilse Grande painting come refreshingly and engagingly alive as they fill out the roles one might imagine for them after pondering his painting.

Mooney is aided and abetted by a wonderful monochromatic set of outsize blank paint canvases designed by Sandy Margaret. Her vision works so well, meanwhile, largely because of CS Ferguson-Vaux's splendid array of costumes. From the wall-to-wall wash of white summer get-ups to start, then all the colours of the finished-painting costumes at the end of Act 1. From there to the sea of black outfits in Act 2 when the clock hurtles forward 100 years to an art gallery in NYC. Smart, distinctive stuff, this. [On synthesizer backing up all this visual energy afoot before us, for his part, Kevin Michael Cripps blows the bejesus out of that rig -- a big Wow! there.]

What Sondheim / Lapine achieve is accomplished because of the universality of their themes. Love and pain and the whole damn thang. Our need to "self-actualize" as Maslow talked of -vs- the intimacy that relationships demand of us. How to reconcile our self-y-ness drives with the love we feel, sometimes fleetingly, other times compellingly, for those closest to us. Put another way, what is the perversity of soul that tends to drive us away from those who probably see us most clearly for who and what we are and want us to share our souls freely and unflinchingly?

Acting pin-spots : Act I completes the consummation of the Ilse Grande painting with the final scene, sung to the rich harmonies of "Sunday" to herald the painting's finish after two long years. Act II opens with to this viewer the truest delight of the night : the characters on Seurat's canvas kvetching "It's Hot Up Here" where they've been immortalized on his ginormous painting. As if two-dimensional painted characters could talk. Sheer fun!

Soon however we meet George 2, Seurat's great-grandson, also an avant grade artist who's stuck both artistically and professionally trying to peddle his light-show creations to reluctant galleries. His duet "Move On!" with Dot to end the show is touching and fetching and tear-jerking.

Martha Ansfield-Scrace as Seurat's model and sometime lover is utterly winsome and captivating. She possesses control of character and facial expression dynamism that her engaging British accent highlights, or maybe that should be noted in reverse order. Regardless : sheer pleasure to be charmed by such a performance. (In Act 2 as George 2's 98-year-old grandma Marie she was a sweet sweet soul.) 

Opposite is Brandyn Eddy. While as George 1 in Act I he is convincing in his confliction and compulsion, as George 2 in Act II Eddy lights up the stage with his art gallery lamentation confronting his artistic "stuckness" and the egregiousness of having to market himself, to fawn and toady and truckle amongst NYC's self-appointed Congress of Scorn.

Ian Farthing as fellow artist Jules and his wife Yvonne as struck by Mandana Namazi were a choice pair. Thomas King as the Boatman turned in a nuanced bully-boy shot, while Peggy Busch as both Seurat's snooty mother in Act 1 and art critic Blair Daniels in Act 2 was consistently convincing. Capable and committed performances by each of the other 10 actors in all their roles and guises. 

Who gonna like : This is a choice Sondheim score and Lapine book, no question. That it will be remounted in NYC next month starting February 11 on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre with Jake Gyllenhaal as George speaks to the show's universality and engagement of eye and ear, heart and mind. 

[N.B. Of a concert-cum-reading of the script featuring Gyllenhaal last October, NYT critic Ben Brantley enthused : "This is the 6th or 7th version I've seen of this musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize in the mid-80's, and on each occasion I've felt thoroughly moved and admiring." That's big praise indeed from one of USA's premier drama critics.]

And while United Players of Vancouver Artistic Director Andree Karass is inclined to promote her club as "amateur", they are not. The actors run the gamut of professional, semi-, up-&-coming and amateur. But what they do in this production under Mr. Mooney's deft and clever and engaging hand is precisely what live theatre is supposed to achieve : divertissement and absorption and escapist moments that bring on smiles and laughs and tears. They got all three from me, and I thank them. 

Particulars :  Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver, Artistic Director Andree Karass. At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street. From January 20 - February 12. Run-time 150 minutes (two acts), including intermission. Tickets & schedule information 604.224.8007, ext 2 or

Production team : Director Ryan Mooney (a.k.a. Artistic Director, Fighting Chance Productions).  Executive Producer Andree Karas.  Production Manager Fran Burnside.  Technical Director Kianna Skelly.  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Set Designer / Head Scenic Painter Sandy Margaret.  Costume Designer CS Ferguson-Vaux.  Sound Effects Designer Zakk Harris.  Live Sound Richard Berg.  Make-up Designer Sharon Grogan.  Stage Manager Jessica Hildebrand.  Assistant Stage Managers Lois Boxill, Amber Scott, Shannon Groenewegen.  Properties / Set Decoration Josina de Bree.  Costume Assistants Teresa Bussey, Barb Haverstock, Samantha Maddaugh, Elizabeth Nixon-McKeller.

Performers : Martha Ansfield-Scrase (Dot / Marie).  Peggy Busch (Old Lady / Blair Daniels).  Charlie Deagon (Franz / Dennis).  Paige Dean (Celeste #1 / A Waitress).  Brandyn Eddy (George).  Ian Farthing (Jules / Bob Greenburg).  Jeff Hoffman (Louis / Billy Webster).  Keren Katz (Louise / Waitress #2).  Thomas King (Boatman / Charles Redmond).  Ranae Miller (Celeste #2 / Elaine).  Steve Mulligan (Mr. Lee / Randolf).  Mandana Namazi (Yvonne / Naomi Elsen).  Keri Smith (Frieda / Betty) [Smith's understudy Ashley Siddals].  Duncan Watts-Grant (Soldier / Alex).  Tristin Wayte (Nurse / Harriet Pawling).

Musicians :  Mike Allen (Reeds).  Kevin Michael Cripps (Synthesizer).  Sarah Ho (Violin).  Pauline Lo (French Horn).

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