Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday in the Park (and Sunday on iTunes)

Catherine and I went to see the revival of Sunday in the Park with George last night. I've loved the music from this show since the moment I lay the needle on the LP in 1984. I only saw the televised version of "the OBC" (an abbreviation I first read on iTunes a few minutes ago... and maybe it's just too early on a Sunday, but it took me a few guesses before I came up with Original Broadway Cast), which I thoroughly enjoyed—but nothing compares to hearing singers (even amplified) and orchestra performing a beautiful score live in a theater. Perhaps it's because I've never really made an attempt to appreciate it, but I've always been a little mystified by people who cry at opera. Sitting in the audience last night, however, listening to The Old Woman (Seurat's mother) and George sing the brilliant duet "Beautiful" which leads so elegantly into the Act I finale, "Sunday", I have to confess that I was fighting the tears ('cause I'm a man, you know...)

Catherine and I both thought the female lead, Jenna Russell, gave a wonderful performance, both singing and acting; I felt a passion in Dot's songs last night that I hadn't really recognized before. She didn't always sing the songs "prettily," because as George says in a song, "pretty isn't beautiful," but she always sang fearlessly. She obviously knew the notes and the rhythms and used them when they served her and changed them when they didn't. Having listened to the 1984 album over and over (and over and over...) again, I didn't expect to be surprised last night: I was by her.

The production, overall, is first rate. Daniel Evans has a great voice and is a very good actor; if I was less blown away by him, I think it probably has more to do with the role: in the play, George observes and obsesses and tries not to feel. I thought Evans really came alive in "Beautiful," where George tries to offer his mother a glimpse of the world as he sees it; and in Act II, as the great grandson of Seurat, on La Grande Jatte, reassessing his future as an artist.  The rest of the cast are all very good, too, although Catherine quibbled with some of their American accents (which is kinda funny because I'm sure at least half of the cast really are Americans... but she's not wrong). 

The video projections used to create the set are great fun to watch and used very effectively to recreate the painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." I was less enthusiastic about the video in Act II (as, indeed, I am about Act II, in general), but I think it just reinforced for me one of the biggest problems with with video onstage: it's an active, two-dimensional element in a three-dimensional art form. No matter how well it's used—and it was used well in this production, technically and in terms of the content—it always feels flat to me. I felt it most acutely in the song, "Putting it Together," where the 20th century George is  juggling several conversations with People Important to His Career at a cocktail reception; as clever as the multiple videos of George are (one accepted a business card from a live actor), they made the scene feel less immediate than the rest of the play because I was constantly thinking about the pre-production process: the different running times of each recording, what Evans had to do in each of them, how long the live actors must have had to work with a video to get their timing right with its reactions. I'm post-Brechtian, so I have no problem showing the artifice of the theater (in fact, I prefer it), but this was just too self-conscious and ultimately caused me to lose the intention of the scene—the ironic song title when the reality is that George is falling apart.

Shortly after this revival opened, I had an argument about Act II at a cocktail party with someone who had just come from the production. I said, and I still feel to a degree, that Act II is less successful for me because it seems to be unfairly critical of 20th century modern art. Young George's installation seems naive and not very compelling; it's his seventh installation of this kind (which artists do, of course, but given the fact that this one is naive and not very compelling, one wonders how he could be so successful with them); and the words George uses to talk about his own work makes it seem even more shallow and cynical. I think there is the possibility of a more engaging exploration of modern art in the script, and this production found some of that. I can't believe that it's because musical theater designers don't appreciate modern art—for the designers I know, the opposite is true. Maybe the directors and designers are anticipating the audience's expectations or beliefs, or that the joke of modern art serves the play better than a more serious examination. I don't think the script supports this at all—in fact, it actually undercuts the point of Act I entirely. However, while I was disappointed by the lightly mocking tone early in the act, I thought it was redeemed by the last third, in which George wrestles with his inner demons of career vs. passion and, in particular, the last moment of the play when, confronted with the endless possibilities of a blank canvas, George gasps in surprise... even now, I'm moved by it.

My final thoughts on this subject are really more postscripts. Since I woke up with the songs running through my head this morning, I went onto iTunes thinking I might download the album. Unfortunately, while iTunes is often cheaper for a lot of contemporary music, cast albums are not: for $20, I think I'll go buy the phyical CD, thank you very much. While I was there, I looked through the various reviews of cast albums posted by people. I've come to the opinion that Broadway fans are very much like Trekkers: they usually don't like it when someone monkeys around with the traditions of their True Love and they can be downright brutal in their criticism of those who do. God forbid anyone ever makes a Star Trek musical...  

Oh no: I probably shouldn't have even planted that seed!


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, S.I., and one I feel I could've written myself.(Although I am in that tiny minority of SUNDAY lovers who actually likes Act Two...although it's less emotionally "satisfying" than Act One, I find its politics to be the true essence of the important discussion. But I digress.)

I've dreamed of a production of this piece that might hire an *actual* visual artist to design the Chromolume sequence...I think the major problem with Act Two is that all too often, it reeks of inauthenticity. In this current revival, the dazzling light show lacks you said, it misses an element of why George might have been successful with the first six of these.

But by and large, I LOVED this production. I agree that Jenna Russell is realize how much potential went untapped by Bernadette Peters, which surprised me greatly. I've gotten the chance to know Daniel Evans a bit over the last few months, and getting to talk to him in depth about this piece -- he's brilliant, studying to get his doctorate in philosophy! -- was really great. (I'll share more with you if you like, but it's waaay too much to type.)

Barry said...

I definitely look forward to sharing more about the production. I thought the same thing about the chromolume: in fact, I was thinking that my friend Myrel Chernick would be a great choice for the job. Her early work, in particular, was installations of focused color and light—very stark and minimal but also incredibly compelling. Recently, she's been working a lot with video but her art also incorporates projected texts with light and shadow in very dramatic ways. Of course, that's why I wanted her to be my collaborator on The Beggar's Opera...