It appears that L. Walter Stearns, Artistic Director of Porchlight Music Theatre-Chicago , is as much a Sondheim fanatic as I am. Each year, he and musical director Eugene Dizon take on another of the wonderful musicals that Sondheim has done and does so with a true love of what they are doing. Their current production is probably one of the most difficult pieces to do at Stage 773 ( formerly The Theatre Building) as “Sunday In The Park With George” clearly needs a large stage to work with, and sorry to say, the stages in this venue are truly not the perfect way to put on this show. But, Stearns, who is also the director of this production made it work. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece of art, it is the story of a piece of art-“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jaffe” by George Seurat and the telling of his obsession with new ways to blend color, style and light to make art more visual for those who look at it. The book by James Lapine ( who directed the original production) is a sort of history lesson about this great artist who was thought to be foolish by the art community of the time.
The idea for the musical was inspired by the fact that all of the people in the painting were in fact people in Seurat’s life, but that he himself was not present. Why not tell his story and make him a part of the famous painting? And so they did! And a glorious piece it is. “Sunday” starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters as George and his mistress, Dot and features some wonderful and powerful songs. “Sunday In The Park with George” is the opening number which shows how he worked and introduces the many characters who become the people in the painting,” We Do Not Belong Together”, “Sunday”, “Putting It Together” ( a remarkable bit of staging where Dahlquist truly shows his range)and the most powerful of the songs “Move On” are songs that Peters and Patinkin still include in their concerts ( among other great Sondheim works). Stearns has put together a strong cast to make this production one that should be on your “to see” list.
Dot, the woman who was George’s true love is handled by the lovely and dynamic Jess Godwin and George is powerfully played by Brandon Dahlquist who many of us have watched mature over the years. Sondheim, known as the wordsmith of music for his playful lyrics is handled to perfection by these two performers and Dahlquist shows a vocal range that is equal to Patinkin, hitting high notes and low notes with equal style and grace. The story is written so that Act Two takes us into present times and Marie ( the daughter of Seurat that he never really knew) is with her grandson , George at an art gallery trying to raise funding for a new electronic art form he is working on. Dahlquist and Godwin take on these roles, with the actual “Sunday In The Park ” painting his inspiration, after Marie passes away, he goes to France, to the Island of La Grande Jaffe to bring the past and future together and it is here that all the ghosts of the past ( the painting) come to life in his eyes, on a Sunday! The story deals with the tension between life and art and how in life we have to make choices between what we want for ourselves and what others want or expect from us. Seurat chose his art over all the rest.
The set by Amanda Sweger is fairly simple, yet has to be flexible enough to allow the actual painting and parts of it to be projected on to while canvass screens that slide off and on. The projections (Liviu Pasare) work despite the small stage area. There is limited choreography ( Andrew Waters) but I would think the movement of all the characters by George to make them fit the painting would have to count. Mina Hyun-ok Hong’s costumes are quite fitting for a small theater troupe such as this and Mac Vaughey’s lighting effects all work. This is a major challenge as shows go and I am happy to say that Porchlight accepted the challenge and exceeded my expectations on this one. It is a brilliant production from start to finish. The only thing I miss from other productions I have seen is the actors as the painting characters stay on stage during the entire intermission so when they open the second act complaining that it is “Hot Up Here” and hard to stay in one position, we the audience feel that they really mean what they say, but as I said earlier, this is a smaller theater with very little space to work in , so I understand them going off and re-entering as the lights dim for the start of Act Two.
Each cast member of this production plays more than one role- the past and the present, and each one did an admirable job. While it is truly the two lead characters that are the show, the ensemble can make or break a show of this magnitude and Stearns has done an excellent job with his talent pool. Shaun Nathan Baer, Cameron Brune, Kelly Hackett, the always bubbly Sarah Hayes, Laney Kraus-Taddeo, Bill Ingraham, Michael Pacas, Hillary Patingre, Doug Pawlik, jennifer Tjepkema,Daniel Walters, Heather Townsend and Sara Stern ( George’s mother and a journalist with a lovely song “Beautiful” in the first act. These actors change costumes and characters with ease and manage quite a few “freeze” poses during this over two hours of magic on the stage at Stage 773 located at 1225 West Belmont.
“Sunday” will run through October 31st ( I feel the need to mention that Mr. Dahlquist will be heading on to Florida for another play, leaving this cast on October 11th) with performances as follows:
Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $38 ( discounts for students and seniors are available) and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 773-327-5252 or at www.stage773.com
Valet parking is available and there is some street parking, but Stage 773 is easy to reach by public transportation