- Sunday in the Park with George
- Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Book by James Lapine
- Director Evan Tsitsias
- Actors Evan Buliung, Tess Benger
- Company Eclipse Theatre Company
- Venue The Jam Factory
- City Toronto
- Runs to March 8
One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of running a theatre company is curating the expectations of the audience.
The Eclipse Theatre Company, an upstart musical-theatre company co-founded by the Canadian Broadway star Chilina Kennedy in Toronto, has been doing a four-star job of this since launching last year.
Sunday in the Park with George, which runs only through the weekend, is the second of what Eclipse is billing as “events” – performances of musicals in non-traditional theatre spaces that sit somewhere between staged concerts and full productions.
Director Evan Tsitsias has set up a spectatorship situation where you won’t mind if one of the actors carries around a script in a scene or two, or if you have to use your imagination to flesh out the set – and yet, you can also still be impressed by a clever bit of staging, or swoon at the lush sound of 34 voices singing the harmonies that conclude the first act of this highbrow 1985 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.
The main reasons why musical-theatre aficionados consider this Sunday a true “event” is that it allows an opportunity to see Evan Buliung, a Stratford Festival star who also played troubled dads in the Toronto premieres of Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen, as the pointillist painter Georges Seurat.
Sondheim and Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning show follows Georges as he paints his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – and also fleshes out some of the fisherwomen, soldiers and other Parisian beings seen relaxing or strolling in the park on the banks of the Seine in that painting. (I say beings because there is a song between two dogs.)
The musical is certainly inventive in form with a shimmering pointillism-inspired score – but, in content, its fairly stereotypical and overly sympathetic portrait of an emotionally unavailable male genius hasn’t aged particularly well. Buliung, nevertheless, broods very appealingly.
The best reason to catch this “event,” however, is for the entirely compelling performance of Tess Benger as Dot, a model who is also Georges’s lover.
Benger, an up-and-comer about to tour the country as Sally Bowles in the Grand Theatre’s hit production of Cabaret, brings all manner of light and shade to the part – plus great comic timing and a voice that can pierce or soar as necessary.
Her best moment, however, comes in the concise second act of the musical – which jumps ahead to 1984 and becomes a satire of art-making in the Reagan era (which is like art-making in our era).
There, George (also played by Buliung), an artist who may or may not be the great-grandson of Georges, broods as he dodges donors and critics at the opening of an exhibit of one of his technological sculptures.
He’s brought along his much more likeable grandmother Marie, who claims to be Georges Seurat’s daughter with Dot. Benger plays Marie in this act – and her sung conversation with her late mother, Children and Art, is simple, unaffected and deeply moving.
She can go a little big when it comes to comedy, but they don’t really read as over-the-top here given the fact that the tone to Tsitsias’s concert/production is even bigger across the board (save for Buliung).
I mentioned there are 34 members of the cast – and that is because the cast includes five well-established professionals (Charlotte Moore is a standout as Georges’s mother), a large group of Sheridan College musical-theatre students and a chorus of high-school students.
A mixture of levels of professionalism was not an issue in Eclipse’s first “event” last year, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as that Kander and Ebb musical features only a handful of major characters.
In this larger-cast show, however, the younger, less experienced actors have to handle a fair bit of dialogue as the figures in Seurat’s painting – and their performances felt, perhaps fittingly, like works in progress.
As for the “site-responsive” nature of this Sunday, the staging in a loft-like venue that dates to the late 19th century called the Jam Factory would be perfectly fine were it not for the fact that it is located right next to the Don Valley Parkway. You could hear the future coming in the windows a little throughout, when that really should be confined to the second act.
A note: Due to a mix-up, I showed up at what turned out to be the only public preview. I usually only review a preview with the creative team giving consent in advance. So, I’m going to skip the star rating on this one.
Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.