Any Given Sunday

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A wise old queen (drag, not royal) once told me that if you stick around long enough, you will see everything start to come back again: fashion, music, ex-boyfriends who dumped you in front of Roscoe’s.  Add to that list celebrated Chicago theater directors revisiting their earlier works. In 2002, I saw Mary Zimmermann’s Metamorphoses, and as I said in a previous post, this year’s Lookingglass remount is still thrilling to me ten years later. In 2002 as well I saw Gary Griffin’s intimate, emotionally-satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs theater, well-remembered around this theater parts for it’s innovative runaway staging (years before David Cromer used it to enthralling effect in Our Town), and for it’s simple, minimalist evocation of George Seurat’s painting “La Grand Jatte” in the Act 1 musical show-stopper, “Sunday”.   Griffin is also revisiting Sunday in the Park with George this year, but this time around he is staging it at Chicago Shakes’ main thrust stage, and with all the bells and whistles and grand ambition that a now internationally-renowned theater director can muster.  And this Sunday in the Park is a stunning achievement, with gorgeous singing, exceptional design, and two larger-than-life yet beautifully-relatable lead performances from Jason Danieley and, especially, Carmen Cusack.

I’ve always felt that Sunday in the Park is one of two Sondheim works (the other one being A Little Night Music) that naturally lends itself to the lush, large-scale, sumptuously colorful productions that audiences expect from musical theater.  I mean the play is about color and light and painting, after all. It has two massive set pieces: Act One, which is primarily about Seurat’s struggles with his art and his troubled relationship with his muse and mistress Dot, ends with a re-creation of the pointillism masterpiece “La Grande Jatte”; the shorter Act Two, which is primarily about Suerat’s great-grandson George’s struggle with creating art and balancing personal relationships, begins with the unveiling of his latest “Chromolume” art work, a lighting/painting/sculpture/scientific gadget hybrid.  Griffin, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg, projection designer Mike Tutaj, and that irreplaceable design savant responsible for many memorable theatrical images in Chicago this year, scenic designer Kevin Depinet, bring these two set pieces to flawless, dazzling, visually-bountiful life. Sunday in the Park also has some of the most haunting melodies in the Sondheim oeuvre, from “Sunday” to “Finishing the Hat” to “Move On”, all shining examples of the apex of American musical theater, and the terrific eleven-person orchestra under Brad Haak’s musical direction successfully envelops the audience in them.

But the Pulitzer-prize-winning genius of James Lapine’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics lie in the crafting of intricate emotional lives for the play’s characters.  This cast and Griffin’s masterful direction bring them all home. Danieley’s Act One Seurat, unlike Mandy Patinkin’s performance in the original Broadway production (memorialized for all eternity on video), is less fearsome artistic obsessive-compulsive, and more self-absorbed, insecure perfectionist.  His performance of “Finishing the Hat” is a wrenching portrayal of insecurity layered with defiance. I loved his Act Two George, in which the insecurity is covered by a veneer of puppy-dog trying-too-hard-ness.  Danieley’s performance of “Putting It Together”, a vocally and emotionally-demanding song that I’ve seen other actors perform with all the grace and breathing patterns of an Ironman triathlete, is effortless.  But it’s Carmen Cusack, playing Seurat’s mistress Dot in Act One and George’s grandmother/Seurat’s daughter Marie in Act Two that truly blows you out of the theater.  Her Dot is such a refreshing, warm-blooded, almost lusty, intellectually curious, emotionally-accepting creation, that you’ll believe she can inspire the greatest artistic masterpieces.  Her rendition of “We Do Not Belong Together” is a marvelously-etched anthem of grief for a lost true love.  And she absolutely elevates what I thought is an already unsurpassable Act Two with a gently commanding performance of “Children and Art”, a song full of sage advice as to what matters most in life.  The rest of the cast, full of wonderful Chicago actors such as Ora Jones, Heidi Kettenring, and the standout McKinley Carter, all create vividly-realized characterizations for their 19th century characters in Act One and their 20th century ones in Act Two.  Griffin ends this production in the same way he does his 2002 staging, and for me, it is as powerful, as soul-stirring, as hair-raisingly good as it was a decade ago.  Sunday in the Park with George proves that some of the best theater in the world continues to be produced in Chicago.

Sunday in the Park with George is unmissable.  Enough said.  It’s running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave on Navy Pier, until November 4.

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