Friday, October 9, 2009

Theater review: 'Sunday' concert version succeeds at Caldwell

The cast of Sunday in the Park With George, in rehearsal.

By Jan Engoren

Clive Cholerton, the new artistic director of the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, is nothing if not a risk-taker.

If the first two shows he’s produced – including the world premiere of an extraordinary melding of dance and song called Vices: A Love Story – didn’t make that point, his new one surely does: a concert version of Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 study of the life of post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat.

This is the first time this show, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985, has been produced in any form in South Florida. And while the unstaged version does leave one wishing for more visuals, this Caldwell Sondheim has to be counted a success. It has a standout performance from Wayne LeGette as the single-minded, work-obsessed Seurat, and the rest of the 14-person cast ably handles Sondheim’s tricky melodies and lyrics (without once getting tongue-tied).

That cast includes a talented group of South Florida actors, including Brian Minyard as Jules; his wife, Melissa Minyard, a Broadway actress, in the lead role of Dot, Seurat’s mistress; and Kim Cozort, a multiple Carbonell Award winner, as the nurse.

The concert series allows for the focus to be on the lyrics and music and there is only minimal staging, scenery and costumes, to keep production costs down. The actors work “on book,” meaning they are reading the score and dialogue, and they are accompanied only by pianist Jon Rose rather than an orchestra. It may seem like a dress rehearsal or recital, because all the actors are dressed in black, no small irony in a show concerned about a painter obsessed with color intensity, interaction, juxtaposition and light.

On Broadway, where it was directed by James Lapine, one of the highlights of the show was the pointillist lighting, and most memorable of all was the creation of a living tableau in which Seurat’s best-known painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, came to life.

So it is somewhat of a contradiction that this once visually oriented production has been pared down exclusively to its auditory sense. Granting that this production is a minimalist concert version, I couldn’t help but wonder if just the suggestion of scenery or some period parasols or dashes of pointillist colors wouldn’t enliven the set. There were large slides of Seurat’s paintings projected onto a screen as a backdrop to the actors, but perhaps more could be done.

Even more interesting, perhaps, would be if the actors interacted more while on stage. Mostly, they were aligned in a long row of chairs, stepping forward only when interacting with Seurat.

The story revolves around Seurat and his passion for painting, the personal toll it takes on him, his relationship with Dot and the assorted visitors in the park, and his search for new ways to express his art. His alienation and desire for connection are all evident in the production as are his longing to be with Dot, despite her frustrations with his intense focus on his artwork.

Seurat’s pointillist theories were rejected by the Impressionists, and as the show makes mention, his colleagues Sisely and Renoir pulled out in protest from the Paris International Exposition in 1900. But in La Grand Jatte, painted in 1884-86, Seurat took a scientific approach to applying color theory to painting, resulting in a new artistic language and altering the direction of modern art.

It must be LeGette’s French heritage that makes him such a perfect Georges Seurat, and it doesn’t hurt that he bears a resemblance to the young Mandy Patinkin, who starred in the 1984 Broadway production with Bernadette Peters. LeGette effortlessly inhabits the character of a driven artist. His comedic ability and talent are evident in the musical number, The Day Off, where he takes on the personalities of the dogs in the painting, barking, ruffing, sniffing and snorting. His voice and presence carry the show and cast.

Other performances of note include Elizabeth Dimon in the dual role of Old Lady/Blair Daniels, who possesses an extraordinary voice, and Laura Turnbull, another Carbonell winner who shines as Yvonne in the first act. Bruce Linser puts in a good effort and passable German accent as the coachman Franz. And a good word needs to be put in for Jon Rose, who proved to be a very adept keyboardist.

One of the most haunting numbers of the evening was the song, Beautiful, the duet sung by Dimon, whose rich voice lent clarity and resonance, and LeGette, whose deep baritone provided a counterpoint of emotional depth.

The opening-night house at the Caldwell was large if not full, but it was enthusiastic, and gave the cast a standing ovation.

To paraphrase a lyric from the show -- “It’s certainly fine for Sunday” – it’s certainly fine for me. I’m one of those people who finds Sondheim’s music a little remote, but while I didn’t leave the theatre humming, I did leave with more than I came with. And that’s what good theater should do.

Jan Engoren is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE will be presented four more times: 8 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Count de Hoernle Theatre in Boca Raton, with tickets ranging from $25-$35. They are available by calling (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432, or by ordering online at Future Broadway Concert Series performances will include Ragtime, The Most Happy Fella and City of Angels.

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