Victorian Opera’s Sunday in the Park with George is exquisite, and it’s heartbreaking that it can only run for a week as so many people will miss this emotionally-perfect production of Stephen Sondheim’s most personal work.
Sondheim wrote Sunday in the Park with George after his Merrily We Roll Along (1981) was booed by critics and closed after 16 Broadway performances. Urban legend says that he was ready to quit music theatre to write mystery novels, but writer and director James Lapine persuaded him to return and they were both inspired by a painting by George Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884).
The resulting work by Sondheim and Lapine (who directed the first production) is a passionate and deeply personal exploration about being an artist and the sacrifices that accompany the choice to make art. It won Tonys for its design and the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the London production won Oliviers, including Best Actor in a Musical for Australia’s Philip Quast.
The first act is set in 1884, as George sketches in the park and develops his new style of painting (pointillism or neo-impressionism, that creates its images and colours from the human eye merging its dots of colour). The fictional story is about the people in the painting, including George’s mother and his lover, who are both rejected by George in favour of his art. The second act is in the 1980s in America where George’s great grandchild, also George, is trying to create and fund his digital work in a world of snobby art critics, and planning to show his interpretation of Seruat’s work in Paris on the island depicted in the famous painting.
Alexander Lewis (who studied at WAPPA and is currently in his second year of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at The Metropolitan Opera in New York) is outstanding as the Georges. Musically, it’s like Sondheim wrote for him and emotionally he grasps the conceit of a man who gives up love for art, without ever losing the empathy of his audience. Christina O’Neill (who was also at WAPPA and a new Red Stitch ensemble member in 2013) is his counterpoint as lover Dot (and his grandmother in Act 2). She, too, sings the music like it’s hers, but it’s the heart and understanding that she brings to Dot that is so engaging.
And they are supported by an ensemble who are each memorable, none lesser than Nancye Hayes, as George’s mother, and an Act 2 art critic, whose Act 1 song to George is a masterclass in how to perform Sondheim (warning: bring a tissue).
Conductor Phoebe Briggs understands how Sondheim applied pointillism to music and ensures that the musicians and voices never let one outshine the other. While director Stuart Maunder (whose direction of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music for Opera Australia left me cold) ensures that the story is led by the powerful emotions that created it.
But even for nothing else, see it for Anna Cordingley’s design. The most famous productions of George won awards for design. Victoria Opera doesn’t have a Broadway budget, but Cordingley has created something that’s as creative and original as Seruat and Sondheim. The costumes are made with material that’s digitally printed with Seraut’s colour palettes. This makes them look like they walked out of a new version of the painting and visually unite the two acts in ways that past designs haven’t. Her detail is intricate and, even from the circle, it’s easy to see that every hat is a finished work of art and her parasols are as beautiful as the music that sings about them. Meanwhile the set uses all of Seraut’s known works and her cascade of falling colours is such a simple idea, but genius in how it supports the story and George’s art.
After the success of Nixon in China, Victorian Opera are continuing to put Opera Australia to shame with a production that deserves to run for months, if only to show everyone who sees expensive opera and commercial music theatre why reviewers like me complain when they miss the mark.
It finishes on Saturday and its nearly sold out. So book now. And full time students and under 30s can get $30 tickets.