Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is a work of great depth and complexity, and presents to any creative team a most wonderful and varied challenge. “Bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony” – these words, from the character of George, are a perfect path into the demands of the show itself.
A fully staged production of Sunday in the Park with George is a designer’s dream when it comes to costumes and sets – to accurately recreate the landscape, and the costumes of the individuals in Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, would be a most enjoyable challenge when one has adequate resources. In The Old Courthouse (a basic hall venue), Ipswich Musical Theatre has produced George in a concert-like manner. The piece was staged on a split level rostrum and no set was used, aside from the odd prop (like a park bench or a table, etc.). A slick, minimalist production will always work if everything else is without detraction – we should not see the posts supporting the second level rostrum; the curtain across the door on the OP side of the auditorium, used by the cast for certain entrances, should be opaque and floor length so we do not see actors milling prior to entering the scene; if actors are changing the onstage props, have them attired in stage crew blacks rather than half-dressed costumes.
A projected image of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was the only visual reference to the artwork, and the image was manipulated from time to time to show only the background of La Grand Jatte, minus the ‘people out strolling on Sunday’. It was a good concept that could have been made great if it had been taken a little further. As George continued to sketch and paint, it would have been lovely to see the artwork evolve from simple landscape to full picture – for example, add to the background the baby carriage/waffle stove, and then maybe, the soldier playing his horn; after the ‘Celestes’ have been sketched, bring them into the projected image, and so on and so forth until the image is complete at the end of Act One.
No set means that the visual focus goes to the costuming. Kristine von Hildebrandt as costume designer and Mary Slattery as wardrobe mistress have sourced and created some pieces that work well, but others fall short. Of note, Yvonne’s dress and Dot’s purple/black dress do well to capture the shape and tones of their counterparts in the painting. The wardrobe choices for the Act Two gallery scene were all decidedly 80s, with the exception of Dennis’ suit which would have been at home in a production of Grease or Hairspray. For the ensemble costuming in Act One, there were some issues – a vest that was too short, trousers that were too short and not made to appear tailored, a jacket that was too tight, swimming trunks in the Bathers at Asnières tableau which had contemporary stripes down the side. Many factors can affect a company’s ability to be able to furnish an era appropriate, well-fitting wardrobe across the board, but with no set, it does become an imperative.
One side note to the cast – the show is not over until the last bow has been taken, and the stage manager gives the ‘all clear’ for cast to retire to the dressing rooms. You are still on display during curtain calls. If you character has been wearing a bow tie throughout the show, keep the bow tie done up until you are back in the dressing room. Show respect to your fellow players, your creative team and your audience by appearing for bows in full costume.
Lighting brought broad strokes of colour, and added to the required mood for each scene. In the top of Act Two when the power in the gallery blows, it was a nice touch to bring up the house lights while the characters Dennis, George and Naomi fixed the issue. The effects that were assembled for George’s Chromolume were suitably 1984 – ‘colour and light’ abounded.
Sondheim’s score mirrors Seurat’s Pointilist technique of painting: multi-layered and precise. Its execution calls for great attention to detail. Ben Murray conducted from keyboard 1, and very ably led his fellow musician (Benjamin Tubb on tenor horn and keyboard 2). They were together throughout, obviously keenly attuned to each other. Murray has clearly worked very hard with his cast to elicit from them well balanced tones, something which was evident in the sound achieved in the end of Act One with ‘Sunday’ – it was a highlight of the show. With only one sightline to the conductor out of a window in the hall, there was only the odd missed music cue from the singers. Murray and his cast should be very proud of the faithful execution of Sondheim’s work.
In such a small space as The Old Courthouse, it is understandable to choose not to body mic the singers. However, by placing the amplification of the band in a position that was downstage of the soloists some of the time, the band occasionally overwhelmed the singers.
Tammy Sarah Linde makes her debut as a director with Sunday in the Park with George. It is a good choice for a debut, as the story of “boy loves girl – boy loves art – boy loses girl” is a timeless in so many ways, and the tale tells itself. Linde’s directional style serviced the needs of the book very well. A couple of blocking choices (for example, the positioning of the Old Lady for ‘Beautiful’) made sight lines impeded for many in the audience. The dramatic tension in the scenes when Dot reveals she is pregnant, and in the moments just after ‘Beautiful’ , was well built, but came to a head a little too soon, leaving the underscore to continue after things had come to a head.
Performances from the cast had strengths and weaknesses. As a whole ensemble, the players worked well together, and their renditions of ‘Sunday’ and “It’s Hot Up Here’ were tight and balanced. In scenes where the majority of the cast were to freeze while one or two players continued, there were instances of cast members not staying wholly frozen, and while it may seem like a small thing, even the smallest eye movement will pull focus from the main action.
Robert Shearer portrayed George as an insular artist who is consumed by his work, and relies on no one. After Dot storms out during ‘Color and Light’, Shearer made George’s conflict very real. His singing voice has great strength and beauty, which showed in George’s heightened emotional moments, like ‘Move On’. Shearer’s diction was not clear at times, in both speech and song, and for a character as meticulous as George, we need to catch every throw away utterance. Cleaner articulation and concentrated support would ensure that the start of every sung phrase was audible – at times, the first couple of notes in a phrase didn’t sound (in ‘Finishing the Hat’, for example).
Danika Saal had great command of the dual role of Dot/Marie. Vocally, she was very strong, and at no time did she struggle to be heard over the band. Saal had an innate feel for Sondheim’s score and delivered Dot with confidence and finesse. From time to time, a hint of Australian accent came into her dialogue (and she was not alone in this). Her Marie was, well, perfect – she presented an extremely endearing grandmother figure, and her rendition of ‘Children and Art’ was heartfelt and engaging.
Special mention to the Celestes (Lauren Lee Innis-Youren as Celeste #1 and Olivia Bird as Celeste #2), as their characterisation was gorgeously girly, and their voices blended extremely well. Simon Drew as Soldier/Dennis was another standout in the ensemble cast. His portrayal of Dennis was earnest and vulnerable. Drew may have only been on stage as Dennis for a short time, but the rapport he created with George was sincere.
Ipswich Musical Theatre are to be commended for taking on this challenging work. The production has moments of beauty and pathos, as well as charming humour. On opening night, the audience showed great appreciation for the piece. For Sondheim fans, a trip to Ispwich is well worth it to enjoy this rarely performed gem.
Performances continue this weekend.
Thursday February 11th – Saturday February 13th.
All performances at 7:30pm
The Old Courthouse and Gallery, Ipswich
To book tickets go to: