Left – Jackie Rees and Vidya Makan. Cover – Nick Simpson Deeks and Vidya Makan. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson.
After a critically disastrous reception for his 1981 work Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim declared his intention to quit musical theatre but in 1984, Sunday In the Park with George arrived as his reputed response and commentary about the nature of working within the arts.
Inspired by artist George Seurat's Impressionist painting, 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte', Sunday in the Park with George, is musical theatre haute couture. Winning the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama along with an abundance of other awards and nominations, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s intellectual work defies how many might understand and indeed perceive the convention of a musical.
While the art and indeed George Seurat are real, the musical offers a fictionalised version of the artist heralded for devising the painting technique of pointillism. Focusing on his obsessive work to create this new way to see colour, Seurat sketches, imagines and interacts with the subjects of his famous Parisian park painting in 1884 while simultaneously paying an ever increasing personal and reputational cost for his aim. With its contemporary second act linking back to the past to further reinforce its themes, Sunday will always resonate most strongly with those creatively engaged in reflecting the world back to its inhabitants.
Watch This is Australia's first and only Sondheim repertory company and an opportunity to see Sunday in the Park with George performed is an irresistibly alluring prospect for any fan, but to see it performed in Melbourne with a cast of this calibre was nothing short of pride inducing privilege. How fortunate we are, truly, to have a company with the magnitude of commitment to produce work of this standard.
There are and always will be aspects of this piece that absolutely dictate possibility. With a narrative focused on an actual piece of art that includes a sequence in which the paintings characters intertextually describe the heat and monotony of being hung on a gallery wall, there really is little escaping obligation for reconstruction and tableaux. Despite its seeming capacity to lock out creativity with its lock ins, Sunday is a deceptively challenging work to stage, particularly for a company of limited means but what Watch This and co-Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares have pulled off is absolutely remarkable.
Given the period of the artwork and the need to replicate it, costume is a huge component and consideration in mounting a production of Sunday. With tiny spots of colour on each costume offering homage to Seurat and the dots that make up the characters themselves within his painting, costume designer Rhiannon Irving delivers an unexpected and truly impressive collection. What has been done here is an inspiration and masterclass for designers demonstrating what can be achieved without the extravagant budgets of more affluent companies. Set designer Sarah Tulloch, lighting designer Rob Sowinski and Milked Studios for Animation, have solved this work collectively with enormous, impressive and genuinely apparent collaboration.
While at surface Sunday in the Park with George is a story about the creation of art and the difficulties faced by the artist, the depth, heart and emotional wrench of this piece is the relationship and compromises made between George and his muse Dot.
As George, Nick Simpson-Deeks is astoundingly good in this incredibly demanding role. The nature of Sondheim is tough going for any singer but within Sunday, the vocal acrobatics feel daunting and yet they are delivered here not just seamlessly but beautifully. Capturing the obsession of an artist using minute dots to create colour illusion demands physical precision if George is going to work and with this actor’s incredible skill, it’s made look simple. An honest, focused, accomplished, intelligent and moving performance I’m confident we will be reminded of at forthcoming award events.
Vidya Makan brings a strong and beautiful voice and perfectly lovable audacity to Dot, and given that it’s Dot’s perspective that keeps us from disliking George, she delivers the perfect measure of kind, funny, feisty and worthy. While her opposite plays an age similar version of his character in Act 2, the dual role for the shows female lead requires a demanding characterisation in the second half. As elderly Marie, Vidya Makan was vocally and physically impressive and spot on cheeky. It really is so hard not to see and hear the extraordinary Bernadette Peters as Dot and Marie but this performance was wonderfully stand alone, fresh and thoroughly enjoyable.
Sunday in the park with George offers its entire ensemble such fantastic cameo moments and each of them in this production were genuinely wonderful but particular mention of Jackie Rees as George’s mother is so warranted. Her delivery of Beautiful, the show’s only other solo, was simply stunning. This is a massively strong company creating beautiful sounds and a landscape of musical colour.
With this incredible production, Watch This have more than made good on their own promise of 'realising outstanding work on the barest of resources" and I genuinely wish this review was helping to promote a much longer run because it feels criminal that a production of this standard was limited to so few performances.
“Give us more to see”
Watch This presents
Sunday in the Park with George
music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book James Lapine
Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
Dates: 21 — 24 August 2019