It’s disappointing that the Union Theatre at University of Melbourne wasn’t fuller for opening night of this charming production of Sunday in the Park with George, a bright and brilliant look at art and creation, love and connection in 1800s Paris.
The show follows a fictionalised version of Georges-Pierre Seurat, and the two year process he took to paint his biggest work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The 3 metre painting took up to 60 studies and sketches, and he spent most of his time preparing for this work, sketching the individuals that would make up this work and obsessing over the light and colours that would make up his work.
The musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim loosely follows the relationship Seurat had with a woman, perhaps his common law wife Madeleine Knobloc, (portrayed instead in the musical as Dot and played by Olivia Gould), and the birth of a daughter out of wedlock between them (Marie, but Seurat had two sons, both who died in infancy). Definitely don’t take this as a historical piece, but just one inspired by a really famous piece of beautiful artwork. The show follows the consequences of Dot deciding to leave George, have the baby with another man, and move to America with him.
The show opens as a brilliant blank canvas for 1884 George (played by Ryan Beutley) to arrange the characters upon to create his work. Starting silent, but then opening with the titular and one of the strongest songs in the show “Sunday in the Park with George” sung by Gould. Gould and Beutley are a charismatic pair, desperate for connection – for Dot, with George and for George, with his art. The pair are delightfully frustrating. Stand out performances were also by Mel O’Brien as the nurse, and Harriet Pawling in the second act, Rafaela Cleeve Gerkus as the dottery Old Lady/Elaine and Asher Harrington as Marie.
The first act is definitely stronger than the second, in both performance, staging and energy, and for me, in writing – Sunday in the Park with George would be a delightful one act show delivering deeply into the artistic process, and could end with his sudden passing and the eulogies, but it continues into a much weaker act about future George in 1984 (played by Dan Czech), which the cast do what they can with but most of the beauty in this show is spent in act one. The energy does drop and the direction becomes a little confusing, but hard to tell whether this is a choice by Robert Johnson, or whether the writing in the second act isn’t as strong and clear in intention, direction and focus.
The music in the show is lovely and the harmonies are suburb, and the band performed well under direction of Lachie Bagnara. They had good timing but the levels weren’t always spot on for the cast and band. The sound though, for ‘Sunday’ and the ‘Sunday reprise’were perfect, with the cast and band handling the soft levels and delightful harmonies well and still managing to fill and electrify the space.
The choice to use English accents, with one or two American and German accents is an interesting one, given the show is set in Paris and its subjects are French, but whether this is a direction issue or something that has come from how the show is generally put on is unclear to me. Pronunciation as a whole isn’t great across the show, with some of the lines getting lost in accents, or in the intermittent microphone issues that plague the first act.
The set and stage were well set as a whole, and well manoeuvred by the cast, and accompanied by well used but not fully realised projections along the back of the screen. There was a lot more potential in the quality and the use of the projected images, but the idea was great.
Overall, it was a delightful performance.