There’s Sondheim magic in Amherst. MusicalFare’s regional première of Sunday in the Park With George (also on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill, cross-reference below) is a visual and lyrical feast, celebrating, explaining and fantasizing George Seurat’s ground-breaking pointalistic style. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” could readily be updated to “this mis en scène is worth many thousands of words and an even greater number of musical notes.” With such a capable cast, crew and artistic leadership, it was as astonishing as it soon became frustrating that the overuse of body mics and cavernous reverberation unwittingly scuttled many of this chamber work’s best moments.
In the happily intimate confines of MusicalFare’s boutique theatre, there is nary a requirement to reinforce a human decibel. The women’s vocal contributions were particularly marred by a most unpleasant, strident, manmade edge whenever the volume went above mezzo-forte or the pitch rose beyond the staff.
Worse, the intrusion of unwanted sonic samplings (swishing fabric, etching charcoal, flipping pages …) gave a louder-than-life tone that added nothing and distracted the ear from the bounty of excellent performances that were, otherwise, so largely engaging. In the second act, the absence of electricity is an amusing plot point that momentarily delays the first look at Chromolume #7 (wonderfully rendered by lighting and sound designer Chris Cavanagh). “No electricity, no art” is the deft summary of the delay. How sadly appropriate this line was and an extraordinary example of “Art imitates art” where, in much of director Randall Kramer’s brilliantly staged production, it’s the ready availability of hydro (and in the shadow of Niagara Falls) that electrocutes instead of electrifies the crowd.
But there is so much to admire: Jenn Stafford brings Dot to life with energy, sensibility and great sense of timing; as Marie she’s a few wrinkles and silver hair short of 98-years-old but her courageously cracking voice worked well. Playing the workaholic, relationship-challenged artist, Paschal Frisina makes easy work of Sondheim’s scatter-shot word painting and readily descends into a fine madness; several generations later, he and his cardboard cohorts along with their admirers sail through “Putting it Together” with panache.
Sheila McCarthy employs her considerable acting and singing skills to conjure up a perfectly crotchety Old Lady and critic-with-a-past, Blair Daniels. In the other supporting parts, Doug Crane shines as the Salieri-like jealous colleague, Jules while Nicole Marrale Cimato plays Nurse with long-suffering conviction and Naomi Eisen with pianistic pizzazz.
Creating the picture within the play were Chris Schenk (set), costumers Lorraine O’Donnell and Olivia Ebsary, Cavanagh and a blocking tour de force from Randall. With the band heard but not seen (special notice to music director Allan Paglia’s keyboard savvy; reed-man Jim Runfola provided much of the colour but his clarinet needed a tad more presence), the large ensemble numbers hung together remarkably well.
Those waiting for the “Big Song” (no “Send in the Clowns” here) might be disappointed. But Sondheim knew that even his remarkable talent was no match for Seurat’s, so crafted a score that—with all of its dots—is at one with the canvas that piqued his imagination and brought him back to the theatre.
Let’s hope a future production will see Kramer and his troupe have the courage to go au naturel and allow the humanity of the voices to reach the audience unfiltered, letting their ears do the final mix. How would they have managed in Seurat’s day? JWR