Chicago Shakespeare Theater opens its 2012-13 season with the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, this poignant and appealing musical is inspired by the life of 19th century French artist George Seurat.
Act 1 takes place in Paris during 1884-1886, the two years that Seurat devoted to painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884, his much loved 7’x10’ masterpiece that is prominently on display on the second floor of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was while gazing at Seurat’s masterpiece thirty years ago that Sondheim and Lapine developed the idea that became this musical.
The dialogue, instrumental music, lyrics, and settings seamlessly blend together to highlight the sacrifices an artist makes for his art and the emotional challenges inherent in such single-minded devotion to one’s art – as well as the impact of such devotion on those in the artist’s life.
Seurat’s painting is made up of thousands of individual dots which, when seen from afar, come together to reveal the painting as a whole. This representation of dots, and parts becoming a whole, is seen repeatedly throughout the musical, from the dots that make up Seurat’s painting, to the naming of his mistress (Dot), to the staccato bars in the music. The dots represent an unfinished life whose parts need to come together in harmony, not remain separate.
While the lyrics play an obvious role in underscoring the play’s themes, the instrumental music plays an equaling important role in emphasizing those themes. The dissonance in the instrumental music represents disharmony in life, as seen in the songs Finishing the Hat, sung by George, followed by Dot’s rendition of We do Not Belong Together. As the play continues, the music moves from dissonance to harmony as the individual parts of the painting – and the play - come together as a whole.
Act II looks 100 years ahead to 1984, with a fictionalized story about Seurat’s 98 year old daughter, Marie (Seurat’s only child was a boy who died as an infant) and his great-grandson, who is also an artist named George. Act II begins at a point where young George’s professional and personal lives parallel those of his great-grandfather. As the act unfolds, the play’s recurring themes of dissonance/harmony, parts/whole, and tension/resolution come together in a moment of epiphany for young George.
Jason Danieley, as Seurat in Act I and young George in Act II, and Carmen Cusack as Dot (Seurat’s mistress and mother of his only child) and the elderly Marie (Seurat’s daughter), give compelling performances infused with passion. Although Danieley and Cusack are featured prominently throughout the entire musical, the remaining actors certainly live up to the demands of their roles as well.
The scenes are cleverly designed (by Kevin Depinet) to show art as a representation of life and to remind the audience that behind great art lies the lives of real people.
Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Gary Griffin, will continue at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through November 4. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 312-595-5600. Don’t forget to have your parking ticket validated for a 40% reduction.
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