Sunday in the Park with George

September 24

November 11, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine | directed by Gary Griffin

Chicago Sun-Times Review

by Hedy Weiss
September 26, 2012

Jason Danieley stars as Georges Seurat, and Carmen Cusack stars as Dot.

It was last March that the Chicago Shakespeare Theater first announced its plans for a production of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park with George.” It would be the latest installment in the company's decades-long exploration of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, the man widely considered the Shakespeare of Broadway.

But it wasn't until mid-July, when Jason Danieley (sharing the stage with his wife, Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie, as well as Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin), appeared in a Millennium Park concert tribute to another Broadway legend, Frank Loesser, that director Gary Griffin, the long-established Sondheim interpreter here, knew he'd found the ideal actor to play Georges Seurat. It is that French post-Impressionist “pointillist” painter, of course, who gave us the grand canvas (a highlight of the Art Institute of Chicago's collection) that captures an idyllic Sunday afternoon on an island near Paris, and serves as the inspiration for the musical.

It was Danieley's ferocious, show-stopping rendering of one particular song, “Never Will I Marry” (from “Greenwillow,” a rarely heard Loesser musical) that worked its magic.

“Jason was one of a few people already on my mind for playing George,” said Griffin, who staged a production of “Sunday in the Park” in the intimate studio space at Chicago Shakespeare 10 years ago, but is now directing it on the mainstage. “I had worked with him briefly in New York on a City Center Encores production of the neglected musical, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’ But casting George, a very complex role, is like casting Hamlet. And only when I heard the emotional connection Jason brought to that Loesser song did I know I had what I was looking for.”

Although Danieley, 41, has performed many Sondheim songs in concert and club situations, this will be his first appearance in a full production of one of the master's musicals. A classically trained tenor who grew up in St. Louis, he made his mark in New York in 1996 when he played Homer, the younger brother in Adam Guettel's “Floyd Collins.” A year later, at 25, he made his Broadway debut playing the title character in the Harold Prince revival of “Candide.” He subsequently appeared in “The Full Monty” on Broadway,” Kander and Ebb's “Curtains” in London's West End, and as Lt. Joseph Cable in the PBS Great Performances concert version of “South Pacific.”

“I feel as if a beautiful gem has been dropped in my lap,” said Danieley, about his current role in the show Sondheim created with James Lapine. “I love the intimacy of the deep thrust stage at Chicago Shakespeare, and being almost surrounded by the audience. And from the start, Gary and I have been on the same page about not being influenced by people’s expectations of the show, but rather finding our own way into it. And the truth is, there are two reasons why I began doing musical theater at all: Seeing a video of George Hearn in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and another of Mandy Patinkin in ‘Sunday in the Park’.”

There are, in fact, two Georges in Sondheim's show, and Danieley hopes to make them a continuum. In the first act, Georges is the painter in 1880s Paris — a man with a mistress-model, Dot (played by Carmen Cusack, the American actress who has worked extensively in London, and starred as Nellie Forbush in the national tour of “South Pacific”) whom he loves, but whom he invariably neglects because of his obsession with work. In the second act, a century later, George is Seurat's great-grandson, a multimedia artist in the United States, hustling to get funding and attention.

“The George in the first act is consumed by painting, but is very bad at communicating with people and getting the kind of attention his painter friend, Jules, gets,” said the actor. “The modern George is sort of a reverse mirror image — good at chatting people up and handing out business cards, but at a creative dead end.

“I've done a lot of research about Seurat. I even started doing some sketching. Seurat used conte crayons [charcoal], which are messy as hell, but he was able to get incredible shades and shapes from them.”

For Griffin, who enjoyed tremendous success with his production of Sondheim's “Follies” last fall (Sondheim himself paid a visit to the show), the chance to revisit “Sunday in the Park,” is a great thrill.

“Not only is it my personal favorite of Sondheim’s shows, but I have a decade more experience to draw on now, and every time I look at the painting itself I see new things. I also think there is a great deal about both the painting and the show that lives particularly well in Chicago. The other day, looking out from our rehearsal room on Navy Pier, I watched some sailboats go by and they might have been the boats on the Seine in Seurat’s painting.”

Griffin also has become increasingly intrigued by the figure of Seurat's mother in the painting (The Old Lady, as she is called, will be played here by Linda Stephens, who also played the role at the Kennedy Center Celebration of Sondheim in 2002).

“The mother has her delusions, but also feels love for her son and his art,” said Griffin. “And I think the one question I might ask Sondheim if I had the chance is: How did you write the mother-son song, ‘Beautiful,’ and is this a conversation you wish you’d had with your own mother, with whom you had a complex relationship?”

After “Sunday in the Park with George,” Griffin will move on to direct yet another Sondheim show, “Company,” at Theatre 20, a new Toronto-based musical theater, and will then head to New York in January for an “Encores!” production of the Bock and Harnick musical, “Fiorello!”

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