Thanks to director Gary Griffin and an extraordinary cast and crew, there can be no better place than Chicago Shakespeare Theater to enjoy the nuances of “Sunday in the Park with George” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine — unless that place is the Art Institute of Chicago, where “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884,” the Georges Seurat Pointillist masterpiece that informs the musical, hangs and where the second act takes place 100 years later.
“Sunday in the Park with George” premiered on Broadway 29 years ago, but the piece remains fresh and relevant as Griffin teases out the tensions between love and art, separation and congress. As Stuart Sherman points out in an insightful program essay, Sondheim’s fragments — “musicalized snatches of dialogue” in Sondheim’s words — work like the dots in Seurat’s magnum opus: “they index both the energies of isolation and the elusive possibilities of harmony, of coalescence.”
That tension is reflected in the structure of the musical, with the cast playing double roles, costumed in the first act set in late 19th-century Paris in top hats and bustles (exquisite costume design by Mara Blumenfeld) and in denim and leather as moderns in the second act. Part of the pleasure of watching the musical is noting how the actors transform themselves as their parts metamorphose.
The entire cast is first rate, but the two principals deserve plaudits. Jason Danieley as French artist George and American artist George (great grandson of the former) fully inhabits his characters and has a voice made for singing Sondheim, like an aromatic cup of coffee without a trace of bitterness. Equally good is Carmen Cusack in the dual roles of Dot — an allusion to Pointillism — the French artist’s mistress, muse and model and of Marie, modern-day George’s grandmother.
All excel: Linda Stephens, Ora Jones, Sean Fortunato, McKinley Carter, Benjamin Magnuson, Derek Hasenstab, Heidi Kettenring, Travis Taylor, Kevin Gudahl, Michael Aaron Lindner, Rachel Cantor, Elizabeth Lanza and Madison Olszewski, an eighth-grader with a bright theatrical future ahead of her. An able orchestra conducted by Ryan T. Nelson propels Sondheim’s score from a platform located above the stage.
Performers of this caliber could likely carry off “Sunday in the Park with George” with a black backdrop, but a musical that is all about art, specifically painting, deserves the richness of Kevin Depinet’s scenic design, enhanced by lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg and projection design by Mike Tutaj. For the many Chicagoans who have stood before Seurat’s work in Gallery 240 of the AIC, watching this production will feel like stepping into a 3D version of the painting. As a gigantic picture frame descends to capture the action, the line between art and life disappears. We experience the painting from the artist’s point of view as well as from an onlooker’s point of view, from behind the canvas and inside the canvas. Having pulled off this trick flawlessly, the team executes another wonder in the second act: a kaleidoscopic, kinesthetic modern sculpture suitable for display at a contemporary museum.
“Sunday in the Park with George”
Courtyard Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Through Nov. 4, 2012
Tickets $48–$78; 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Photos: Liz Lauren