According to an ancient Chinese proverb, “Every picture tells a story.” The story can be about the subjects, the artist, or both. Stephen Sondheim certainly found that interesting as his mind focused on the story of George Seurat and the creation of his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. That story is presented in Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” that is currently playing at True North Cultural Arts, directed by the esteemed Martin Friedman. This isn’t an easy musical to produce. There are no hit songs, no dance numbers, just raw immersion into the mind of creativity of Sondheim, which for some is delightful, and others, a fate worse than death. But isn’t it fun to live on the edge?
Martin Friedman does live on the edge. In his director notes he states, “The centerpiece of my career has been the interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s work…I am drawn in and compelled by his soaring music and astonishingly clever, wry, clear-eyed, and profound lyrics.” So there you have the main ingredient to producing this musical: Passion. Friedman has assembled a very talented cast, in every role, to bring this piece to life, largely due to the respect he has from actors, and also, the respect actors have for the piece itself.
Loosely based on the life of Seurat (Bevan Haynes), the first act follows the life of the artist as he struggles to maintain a relationship with his mistress, Dot (Amiee Collier), as he creates his famous painting. We become painfully aware that sometimes our artistic or career aspirations get in the way of our personal relationships, no matter how much we love. The second act takes place 100 years later as Seurat’s American descendant, George, struggles with his own career and path as an artist. Even after so much time, the past does not leave us, and continues to assuage our feelings.
All the actors pull double duty, playing different characters in Act Two. But this production showcases the two actors that play George Seurat and his mistress Dot in Act One, and then George, a young artist and his grandmother Marie in Act Two. Bevan Haynes brought a lot of angst and tortured focus to George Seurat. From the beginning, a confident face embraces the audience. Haynes brought a brooding presence that worked nicely within Act One. In Act Two, Haynes had a youthful energy with a fractured layer of confidence for the Chromolume Kid. His only hiccup was getting tongue tied in the song “Putting it Together,” which is a bitch of a song, but he recovered quickly and with confidence and closed powerfully in “Move On.” As for the lady of the house, you could easily call this Sunday in the Park with Amiee. Act One brings confidence, clear diction, and an arsenal of carefree, funny and emotion to the performance. Solid work from the anchor of the show. Act Two reveals a softer side to this “Trumpet of the Land” songstress. I love when belt proof performers bring the softer, gentler side of their talent, and here, Collier is beautiful. Not overplaying being a grandmother, but letting the words and emotion take a natural course. Great stuff.
The rest of the cast is solid. Everyone gave great focus, and adding immeasurably to the story. Supportive parts are assumed by strong voices such as Devon Turchan, honest portrayals like Eric Fancher, and serving up hoity-toity by Trey Gilpin and Kate Michalski. There really isn’t a weak link in the cast that includes Theresa Dean, Antoinette Kula, Neely Gevaart, Robert Pierce, Sophie Madorsky, Kate Atherton, Nate Sayatovich and Andrew Parmelee. There is no greater proof than the soaring vocals that close the show.
The orchestra led by conductor Jordan Cooper was luscious and wonderful. It was so nice to hear a LIVE orchestra in the house. Great work accompanied by talented musicians that kick ass in a complicated and demanding score.
Stage Manager Shane Joseph Siniscalchi called a great show. Cameron Caley Michalak provided Set Design (a universal sparse set) and served as Technical Director. Amber Michalak earned her Scenic Painter Lifetime Achievement Award by recreating the La Jatte painting for the production. How the heck did you do that? Life partners Jordan Cooper and Antoinette Kula produced solid costume design work.
There were some distractions. The sound at times for the orchestra was too loud, especially in “Move On” and “Putting it Together.” But I think that might have to do with George’s mic being set too low. There were many times I struggled to hear him during songs with the ensemble singing. But the biggest distraction is the covering of the picture in Act Two. It looked wrong and wrinkled, and as a result was distracting. Is it supposed to cover the picture, or just serve as a temporary exhibit cover? At least have someone straighten it out.
This show will be an acquired taste. The average musical theatre audience might not get it. This piece exists for good reason, but know that this is not traditional music theatre, so bring your adventurous friends. Or folks that would like to see the beginnings of an American musical icon.
P.S. I really wanted the baby to be Buckley underneath the swaddling clothes. But I digress.
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$10-$18 Reserved Seating
TrueNorth Cultural Arts
French Creek Nature & Arts Center
4530 Colorado Ave.
Sheffield Village, OH 44054