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Central School of Speech and Drama’s clever adaptation of Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

Updated on May 13, 2012
'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by Georges Seurat - the inspiration at the heart of this musical.  The painting is held in The Art Institute of Chicago's Helen Birch Memorial Collection
'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by Georges Seurat - the inspiration at the heart of this musical. The painting is held in The Art Institute of Chicago's Helen Birch Memorial Collection

A colourful palette of art, passion, love and loss at the Central School of Speech & Drama’s clever adaptation of Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

1st May – 3rd May, 2012

Review by Fiona Lister

MA Music Theatre Students staged a clever, absorbing adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. Written in 1983 and based on a book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George has enjoyed hugely successful runs on London and Broadway, earning it notable awards, including: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1985); Drama Desk awards for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book and Outstanding Lyrics (1985); and two Olivier Awards for Best New Musical (1991) and Outstanding Musical (1997), to name a few.

Sondheim’s unusual 19th-century musical is based on a fictional narrative of the artist Georges Seurat’s iconic Neo-Impressionist, pointillist work: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) or Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, (La Grande Jatte is an island in the Seine River). The painting is held in The Art Institute of Chicago's Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

The story is a fictional take on the French Post-Impressionist painter intermingled with a few facts. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine depict the lead character George as being so obsessed and immersed in creating a masterpiece that he ceases to relate to anyone else, which is not true of Seurat’s own life. The story colours George’s (the lead character) passion for creating works of art, which in turn blinds him to the affections of loved ones until he rejects his mistress and child. Each stroke of George’s paintbrush signals his addiction to art, until every ounce of his soul becomes imbedded in the optical illusions of the dots and colours he creates on the canvas.

Directed by Gary Sefton, for the Central School of Speech & Drama, Sunday in the Park with George is one of Sondheim’s more melancholy, complex works, especially when you compare it next to his other musicals: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Follies; A Little Night Music; Sweeney Todd; Into the Woods; Assassins, and lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.

There is no doubt that staging such a complicated production boasting incredibly strong visual imagery, as seen in the park setting and the futuristic modern art gallery scenes in Act II, is challenging for any theatre in austere times. Considering today’s tight budgets, Gary Sefton and the creative team pulled out every inventive trick in the book to find simple but effective ways of using scenery. The MA Music Theatre Students made maximum use of the props, particularly the life size picture frames.

The spotlight stuck rigidly to the cast and the fabulous band who under the direction of Music Director/Conductor Zachary Dunbar with Jay Jenkinson (Cello), Robert Raynor (Assistant Music Director/Keyboard 2 (Synthesiser), Maria Adelaida Robledo J (Arranger/Repetiteur) and Oliver Payne (Assistant Music Director/Keyboard 1 – Piano) struck up the delightful musical score.

Set Designer Colin Mayes constructed empty picture frames that bordered George (Tom Sterling) as he painted onto the imaginary canvas in his studio. Simple folded cloths hung from the ceiling gently swaying to and fro, giving the impression of trees rustling in the park. The lighting design by Richard Godin gave depth to the emotions, park scenes and tableaux vivants. The result was a picturesque, veritable palette of light, shade, colour and ghostly cameos that mirrored Seurat’s Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte. There was a stunning moment in this production at the end of Act One, when the cast freezes in the same positions seen in Seurat’s famous painting. They resembled the silhouetted figures lifted from the painting into life - incredibly magical and haunting.

Tom Sterling gave a magnificent performance as the young Seurat who grows more enchanted by his painting than by his mistress Dot (Tamar Broadbent). Tom Sterling is certainly one of the most charismatic young up-and-coming musical talents to grace the theatre in recent months. The dark-haired Sterling completely owned the role and indeed the stage, perfectly capturing the madness of an artist who relates more to the optical illusions in his work than to the vibrancy of those around him. Tom Sterling is reminiscent of a young Jeremy Brett with a rich, warm velvety voice that pours over the audience. Watch out for Tom Sterling. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. Tom’s professional experience includes the roles of Tenor: Salzburger Bach Choir (Opening: Salzburg Music Festival 2010), Salzburg Music Festival 2010: Les Choésphores, and Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé - Groẞes Festpielhaus,Salzburg (all directed by Alois Glasner (MD); the role of Billy Crocker Anything Goes (King’s College London); Cinderella’s Prince Into The Woods (King’s College London); Orin Scrivello (The Dentist) Little Shop of Horrors (King’s College London); John Utterson Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (King’s College London); Angel City Four Tenor City of Angels (King’s College London).

Similarly, another rare musical theatre gem is the stunning willowy blonde, twenty-two year old Tamar Broadbent, who played the role of Dot, George’s long-suffering mistress. The role of Dot is based on Seurat’s young model lover, Madeleine Knobloch, with whom he lived in secret. Seurat painted Madeleine in his work ‘ La Jeune femme se poudrant’ (1889) which is hanging in the Courtauld Gallery, London, together with some of his livelier works, including Study for 'Le Chahut' (circa 1889) and the divine ‘Man Painting a Boat’ (circa 1883). Madeleine Knobloch was an uneducated woman from a working class family, and although Seurat lived with Madeleine they never married. Tamar Broadbent portrayed Dot as a steely, independent woman whose patience is tested to the limit. Dynamic Tamar gave a heartfelt performance as the tormented artist’s model – one moment professing love for him and the next minute she is tearing her hair out at his total absorption and passion for art above everything else. There’s a heart-rending moment in the story when Dot is preparing for her date with George at the Follies and sings “Colour and Light”, but George stands her up in order he can carry on painting.

Dot is very much the ‘other woman’ in the relationship and the audience couldn’t help but share her pain, especially when her lover’s addiction to art grows more intense leading her to find security in another man, Louis the Baker (Mark Zhuang). Dot eventually chooses Louis the Baker over George, despite being pregnant with George’s child. She still clings to the hope she can be with George but he rejects her totally in favour of his work, refusing to even let her have a parting gift of a painting he created of her. Whether coquettishly powdering herself as Seurat’s mistress did or deliberating her love for George and pleading with him to notice her, Tamar Broadbent is a versatile young actress who is suited to punchy character roles. Tamar is also a composer and lyricist, having written and staged her own hilarious comedy musical ‘Pierced’ at the Landor Theatre last month to huge acclaim (see review: Tamar’s other roles at the Central School of Speech & Drama include: Ensemble in A Brief History of Everything (directed by Stuart Angell); Lead Soprano The Briefest Encounter (directed by Paul Barker); Ensemble Behind the Lines (directed by Paul Barker).

Sunday in the Park with George is a musical involving a large cast of twenty-two and in order that the students could showcase their versatility, many of them doubled up and played other roles. The costumes were very carefully thought out by Kate Gwynne, so that Dot’s dress had a large bustle on the back, resembling Seurat’s mistress from the painting.

The MA students alternated some of the roles on different days, giving others a chance in the spotlight; in particular, I understand that Rick Woska who also played the role of George, and Kate Alder who played the role of Dot/Marie, gave sterling performances.

The cameo roles within the main love story add to the enchantment of the park. Right from the beginning an Old Lady (Vassula Delli) and her Nurse (played on alternate dates by Luisa Lyons and Esther Raday) set the scene by casually slipping into a conversation about the 1889 Exposition Universelle – the World’s Fair which celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution and the advent of the Eiffel Tower (designed by Gustave Eiffel). Anyone reading this and wanting to learn more about life in Paris during this period, should read Emile Zola’s bawdy Les Rougon-Macquart novel ‘Nana’ (first published in 1880) detailing the adventures of a streetwalker to high-class cocotte and celebrated performer in the Théâtre des Variétés. French artist Édouard Manet painted his interpretation of ‘Nana’ (1877) seen powdering herself in a portrait similar in theme to Seurat’s ‘La Jeune femme se poudrant’.

Scenes blended seamlessly from one vignette to the next, providing a fascinating fictional description of the characters depicted within Georges Seurat’s painting as they walk or sit in the park. This is also a story of art being criticised or appreciated by others and how that recognition can be shattered or late in coming, especially when a work is unconventional and new. John Boylan played the role of George’s friend Jules, a successful artist who together with his wife Yvonne (Katie Beudert) criticise George’s first painting hanging in a gallery, describing it as having “No Life”.

Dot eventually walks in the park on the arm of her baker Louis (Mark Zhuang), leaving two gossiping girls - both named Celeste (Emma Button and Ashley Dye) singing the song “Gossip” but their heads are soon turned by a handsome soldier (David Albury). Other fictional figures from the park tableau included Franz (Kristian Cleworth) and his wife Frieda (Jillie Mae Eddy). Ethel Yap was hilarious as sprightly young daughter Louise to Jules and Yvonne, who discovers her father rushing off with Frieda for an indiscretion behind a park bush. Jumping up and down like an excited child, Louise imparts the dastardly news to her mother Yvonne, and merry hell breaks out between the couples. Similarly, Anna Kritikou was brilliantly funny in her portrayal as Fifi the Dog who yaps and begs, and Antonis Dimitrokalis is fabulous as the Boatman.

The end of Act I was beautifully staged with sublime lighting (Richard Godin). The characters from the park freeze into the same positions seen in Seurat’s painting (above right) while George paints them. They sing the mesmeric song “Sunday”. The tableau with all the characters we had come to know in the first half gave a ghostly interpretation of the figures - the best moment in the production.

Act II merged straight from the end Act I when the tableau is frozen in exactly the same position singing "It's Hot Up Here". The characters are stuck within a time-warp in the painting and want to escape.

Georges Seurat died on 29 March 1891. He was just thirty-one years old. The second half combines the past with the present and takes a sudden leap away from 19th-century Paris, transporting the audience to 1984 – the fictional world of George’s great-grandson – a struggling artist living in America, also named George! In real life Georges Seurat had two sons with Madeleine Knobloch, but very tragically, they did not survive past infancy. Seurat died before the birth of his second son and Madeleine died a tragic death at the age of thirty-five from cirrhosis of the liver.

Fictional great-grandson, George (also portrayed by Tom Sterling) unveiled his color and light machine called "Chromolume 7" based on Seurat’s painting. Simple white boards carried by the ensemble with bright lighting streamed down upon them, gave a simple but believable futuristic interpretation of the story, ultimately crediting Seurat’s scientific approach to painting, with an emphasis on colour being used to create harmony.

Tamar Broadbent was fantastic in the role of Marie, George’s grandmother, who is Dot and George’s daughter. Tamar demonstrated her versatility at conveying an elderly person in a wheelchair while still retaining a steeliness and strength to the character. Katie Beudert (Museum Assistant) and Mark Zhuang’s (Dennis) gave engaging and highly believable performances. Other credit must be made to Hyunjin Myung (MJ) in her role as Harriet Pawling; Bada Ruben (Mr America/Billy Webster), and Kimberley Shore (Mrs America/Naomi Eisner/Follie Girl).

The musical ended with great-grandson George being invited by the French government to the island where Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. George reads a book he inherited from Dot and as he does so, Dot appears in a vision and sings “Move On” in response to his critics. Characters from the painting emerge ghost-like onto the stage to resume their positions in the final tableau (reminiscent of the painting), and once again sing the haunting song “Sunday”. They leave the stage (a blank canvas) and George alone who says, "White: a blank page or canvas. His favourite – so many possibilities."

The MA Music Theatre Students produced an enchanting take on Sondheim’s award-winning musical. Well-developed characterisation, vocally strong harmonies and imaginative, innovative direction made Sunday in the Park with George a joy to watch.


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    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this. Your obvious passion for all things theatre comes through in your detail and precise observations and descriptions - whets the appetite for more.

      As a drama teacher -with responsibility for putting on plays - I'm always keen to look at the way a play (or musical) is delivered - from the acting to the position of the lights and seats! It's surprising just how many elements go to make up the complete package and how just one or two imbalances can influence the production.

      I love the 'freeze' in this musical (it sounds similar to a warm up we do in the drama group), a snapshot that echoes and echoes. Great.

      Must read one or two others soon.


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