'The challenge: bring order to the whole through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony'. This is how Stephen Sondheim's profound and delicate Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George opens, and it could almost be read as a stage direction. Unfortunately, it's a direction the Victorian Opera have largely ignored.
Sondheim and his book writer James Lapine fashioned this strange and lyrical piece out of the life of the Post-Impressionist George Seurat, famous for his championing of the painting technique known as Pointillism. The show deals with the genesis of his extraordinary painting 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'. The first act can be seen as the coming together of George's painting, and the second as a kind of aftermath, albeit one occurring a century later. Sondheim and Lapine would go on to perfect this structure with Into the Woods, but here it works mainly as a thematic exploration of 'children and art', of transience and durability.
George (Alexander Lewis) is an obsessive but brilliant artist on the rise when we meet him, lusted after by most of the girls who promenade on the Grande Jatte, where he goes to people watch and sketch. We meet all of the main subjects of the famous painting, including George's mother (the pitch-perfect Nancye Hayes) who initially pretends not to know him, but later goes on to encourage him to 'draw it all, Georgie'. None, though, are as significant as Dot (Christina O'Neill), his lover and muse. Can he truly be an artist and have room for Dot, room for love and normal life? Will he take her to the Follies, and if not, will 'she still be there when the hat and the parasol have finally found their way?'
No other musical has dealt so deeply with the act of creation. This is a big call, because so many of them do. We've just seen Gypsy tackle it, recently there has been a production of A Chorus Line, and soon we'll see Singing in the Rain. But while these shows focus on the act of 'putting on a show', none deal with the interior act of creating art quite like this. The song 'Finishing a Hat' sums up the notion with stunning simplicity. 'Look I made a hat. Where there never was a hat'.
Sunday in the Park with George is a particularly challenging show to stage, centering as it does on the recreation of one of the most famous paintings in the world. It requires genuine showmanship, but also subtlety and grace. None of these traits are on display on the Playhouse stage. The set design by Anna Cordingley is frankly awful; a gold frame lined with white vaudeville lights, and an inexplicable gold staircase that completely ruins the first act finale. It's tacky, intrusive and limits the performers.
Sadly, the set isn't the worst thing about the design. The costumes, also by Anna Cordingley, are some of the worst things I've seen on a professional stage. This is a play that revolves around notions of 'colour and light'. So the costumes are colourful. Hideous, ghastly colours. They look clownish. This may be intentional, a self-consciously tasteless American interpretation of nineteenth-century France, but I doubt it. The original paintings should have provided glorious inspiration to the design team but instead seem to have been pilloried and corrupted. The bad reproductions of original Seurat works is as much a disaster as the recent Rothko repos in the MTC production of Red.
Thankfully the night is not entirely sunk by the sins of design. Lewis and O'Neill prove that WAAPA remains our best producer of talent in Australian musical theatre. O'Neill's Dot is beguiling and passionate, her whole performance like a warm hearth in winter. Lewis is superb, dazzling and intimate, seeping melancholy but sharp and edgy too. He carries the show. Of the ensemble, the women in general fare better than the men, with Antoinette Halloran and Carrie Barr in particular standing out.
Phoebe Briggs conducts with glorious control. The score must be at once precise and expansive and Orchestra Victoria does a splendid job, despite some occasional dodgy horn work. The ensemble singing is lovely, and there are few hiccups with the sound.
Stuart Maunder's direction is largely to blame for the problems of this production. He overplays the comedy and allows for way too many clumsy and awkward moments. Scene changes are late and cues are missed. But worst of all, he has turned a fragile and graceful work into something crass and bawdy. May we look forward to a future production that displays a lot more light and harmony than we are getting here.