Review: Sunday in the Park with George (Eclipse)

Photo of the Company of Sunday in the Park with George by Dahlia KatzSite-specific Sunday in the Park arrives on the Toronto stage in a “beautiful canvas”

Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s brilliant, century-spanning musical meditation on the place and value of art, gets a site-specific production from Eclipse Theatre at The Jam Factory for six short days.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning show celebrates the magic of the process of creation, which fits nicely with Eclipse’s ethos; professional actors are supported by fourth-year Sheridan students in a ten-day rehearsal process, to fashion something between a staged reading and full production. The result here is closer to the latter than the former.

The first act is a fictionalized account of Georges Seurat, famed Pointillist painter, here called George (Evan Buliung), and his muse, Dot (Tess Benger), as Seurat struggles to create his enormous 1884 masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” This instantly-recognizable painting presents a crowd of parkgoers enjoying a beautiful day of rest.  George is the consummate obsessed artist, letting his personal relationships fall by the wayside as he chases his dream to “bring order to the whole.”

Much like a pointillist painting is created through thousands of individual dots, which form increasingly-recognizable images the farther away you get, the individual figures in the painting are brought into sharper focus. Each given a personality and a backstory, their intertwined lives are fleeting, but become immortalized in art.

The space at the Jam Factory is a small warehouse with a hipster wedding venue vibe, an enjoyable but not especially unique thematic match for the show. Still, it’s a nice and cozy way to immerse oneself in the experience, and even allows for occasional moments of the audience being literally surrounded by song.

A large blank canvas sits at one end, and white parasols hang from the ceiling, as if dropped from a giant’s fruity cocktail (set and costumes by Michelle Bohn). Victorian-era costumes also play with shades of white. There are wooden support columns surrounding and centred in the playing space; the central one pays off as a stand-in for a series of references to a tree, but the general result is unfortunately obstructed views.

Director Evan Tsitsias has, with few exceptions, created an effective staging in the difficult thrust stage space. Movement, directed by Allyson McMackon, is constant and adds visual excitement. The setup of the painting tableau is lovely: as the pieces, composites from several studies, drift into place, there’s a spine-tingling moment of visual and musical harmony.

As George composes his painting, an artist (Lori Mirabelli) paints live on the canvas. The painting has an abstract quality, in a nod to Impressionism, but is perhaps deliberately anti-Pointillist, full of languid strokes of colour. It’s all very appealing, crying out for perhaps one more missing spark of artistic magic to make it complete.

Written 100 years after the painting’s debut, the musical skips to a more contemporary period in the second act. Artist George, Dot’s great-grandson, paints with light instead of oils, celebrating the older masterwork at a gallery opening. The men are linked by despair of the validity of their choices, dealing with a need to forge their own paths versus a need to be commercially viable.

Exemplified by costumes labelling and commodifying each player in terms of roles such as “Artist” of “Patron of the Arts,” the show asks, given current conditions, how do we make something new? And how do we know we’re doing the right thing, as novelty is often derided in its time?

As the Georges, Buliung is terrific, particularly in the intense, single-minded “Finishing the Hat,” and in the second act, when he allows himself more emotional vulnerability. In the first act, next to Dot, he feels muted – but that seems like a deliberate choice. She’s the colour and light he craves.

Tess Benger as Dot shines, full of insouciance, energy, and wonder – and an impressive set of pipes. When she smiles, you wonder how Seurat could have maintained his attention on his painting. Dot being so much her own woman, boldly making decisions and taking initiative, helps take most of the sting out of the “Great Man” portrayal of the artist that the show both criticizes and celebrates. Later, as Marie, the second George’s grandmother, she exhibits an impish mischief under a pair of owlish glasses and wearier voice.

Charlotte Moore is also particularly good in two very different roles, the shrinking “Old Lady” afraid of change, and a gregarious art critic who demands nothing but.

The music sways between sharp, bright staccato points, and rich, vibrant brushstrokes of tone. Sondheim is tricky because his work is so intricate; it’s especially on display here, with stories and characters weaving through songs like a well-threaded loom. It demands incredibly precise timing and articulation. For the most part, the student cast is up to the task, with vocal standouts including the eye-rolling Nurse (Bethany Monaghan), and frisky Frieda (Sydney Cochrane).

Some of the Sheridan students haven’t quite fully internalized the wordplay yet, and a small amount is lost in muddiness in the less-forgiving group sections. Honestly, though, the result is pretty astonishing for a mere ten-day rehearsal process.

I have loved this show for a long, long time. It’s unconventionally structured and a little messy for all its intricate craft, yet it is beautiful and has breathtaking emotional impact. It is likely to resonate with anyone who has ever been motivated to make art of any kind, anyone who wants to leave a mark, or anyone who has felt the pressure of newness and reinvention.

Though art can be everlasting – Marie says it’s one of the two things we leave behind that really matter – this production is ephemeral, lasting only until, appropriately, Sunday. Some errant spots aside, this is a beautiful canvas. Take it in.


Photo of the company by Dahlia Katz