Magazine article The Sondheim Review

In George's Imagination

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

In George's Imagination

Article excerpt

Shaw Festival presents a thoughtful Sunday in the Park

At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-theLake, Ontario, director Alisa Palmer, choreographer Bill Coleman and musical director Paul Sportelli brought intriguing new ideas to Sunday in the Park with George (April 1-Nov. 1, 2009). Palmer and Coleman echoed Sondheim's musical motives by providing the characters physical motives, giving the production an ethereal quality that foreshadowed the creation of the painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884." These touches suggested that much of the play was taking place in George's imagination and were most effective as he passed through a swaying cluster of characters singing about "arrangements of shadows" just before he began to construct his masterpiece.

Palmer and designer Judith Bowden spotlighted Seurat's working process by bathing the production in black and white. Framed against charcoal drawings of the park's landscape, Bowden dressed each character in shades of black, white and gray, adding color as the production progressed. This slowly evolving effect was overwhelmingly beautiful as the painting was eventually brought to "purple-yellow-red" life.

Palmer and Sportelli slowed down many of the rapid-fire lyrical passages ensuring that the density and brilliance of Sondheim's lyrics were not lost, particularly in "Gossip," "It's Hot Up Here" and "Putting It Together."

Another beautiful choice by Palmer and Sportelli was to include horn player Christine Passmore onstage. Because the instrument figures so prominently in the orchestration, it was wonderful to hear and see a truly skilled horn player on the part. Too often horn players mangle the signature Sunday interval, giving many productions a precarious start.

The production also featured a few musical missteps. Sportelli's conducting was a bit distracting with his bouncing finger conducting both pickup and downbeat cues; this bobbing appendage drew attention away from the story. At one point in "Finishing the Hat," Steven Sutcliffe (George) sang, "I give all that I can give," instead of "I give what I give." One wonders whether this lyric (which scans oddly) was an isolated mistake or a perplexing lyric change. In addition, Sportelli's orchestra often overpowered George and Dot's counterpoint in "We Do Not Belong Together" and "Move On," two of the musical's most potent songs. …

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