After a disappointing production last season of A Little Night Music (cross-reference below), it was not without some trepidation that I ventured into the Royal George Theatre for the opening night of the Shaw Festival’s first staging of Stephen Sondheim’s most challenging, rewarding work. In nearly every way, this production succeeded, making the composer/lyricist’s points as effectively as Georges Seurat’s masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, upon which the musical is based.
Years back, I can recall discussing the ethics of lifting compositional techniques (especially orchestration: where would the Star Wars, and Superman films have been without the pioneering genius of Maurice Ravel?) with Sondheim following an artist’s chat at the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we agreed, but after a point any claim to originality is slim at best. Try listening to the complete Daphnis and Chloe, and then revisit the exploits of Darth Vader or perhaps find a disc of “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets before viewing the struggle of good vs. evil in Metropolis.
Magically in the score, Sondheim is at one with Seurat’s groundbreaking canvas: the frequently rapid-fire vocal lines and lyrics create an aura of their own and many unfamiliar colours, which, over time, produce an aural palette that is truly unique. Especially pleasing was the banishment of body mics: for once, the music was allowed to find its way directly to our ears without any sort of filtering or reinforcement to distort its natural effect. Accordingly, Paul Sportelli’s beautifully and skillfully rendered orchestrations (along with Wayne Gwillim for the Chromolume scene) were heard simultaneously by cast and audience with no delays or split-second echoes. Conductor Sportelli was then able to shape and support the solos, duets and ensembles with a marvellous mix of freedom and inspiration that has set a new standard—especially for the full-cry company numbers—of excellence that is as welcome as needed rain.
His colleagues in the pit were equally dexterous and attentive—notably Ryan deSouza’s keyboard contributions and Kathryn Sugden’s soaring violin tone. Having French hornist Christine Passmore slip into costume and appear in the middle-ground of the famous picture as it gradually came to life was a masterstroke of stagecraft and verisimilitude. Indeed, both the first iteration of “Sunday” (ending Act I) and “It’s Hot Up Here” (the opening of Act II, where Seurat’s painted subjects fantastically speak their minds about their perpetually frozen lives), are showstopping highlights, demonstrating conclusively how everyone involved is on the same page.
Director Alisa Palmer has kept the action moving as quickly as the music allows. Thanks to her collaboration with designer Judith Bowden, the eye is mightily engaged: the costumes in particular are so faithful to the fabled painting that there is a palpable “you are there” feeling when the disparate/desperate characters combine to demonstrate life as art.
Uncanny is Jay Turvey’s visage when, playing the sometime friend/“fellow” artist Jules with the ideal mix of envy and pride, he manages to capture the look and personality of his painted incarnation perfectly. Julie Martell, picture-mate Dot (and model/lover of Seurat), also strikes her poses with aplomb but occasionally slips into the dark side of pitch during her songs. Those few blemishes are more than erased by her portrayal of near-centenarian Marie after intermission.
Steven Sutcliffe’s pair of Georges (the obsessed painter/his apparent great-grandson) are full of energy and passion—convincing with every stroke. Driven by his inner muse, the notion of the success of art for the artist is in the doing, comes across strongly even though a masterful result doesn’t “give you a hug.”
Playing Old Lady/Blair Daniels, Sharry Flett makes a convincing mom and delightfully jaded art critic: her departure line was a comedic gem of tone and timing. Gabrielle Jones was most effective as the wayward nurse even as her devoted partner Franz (Kyle Blair, a model of understatement even as he employed an accent that demonstrated the heritage without a trace of lampoon) discovered the dangers of splendour in the long grass. Similarly, Neil Barclay’s Southern twang kept interjections of the pastry-loving American and his Mrs. (Melanie Janzen) in just the right proportion to their roles.
In the triple parts of Bather/Soldier/Alex, Kawa Ada demonstrated versatility, style and a great sense of fun. He is just one example of why The Shaw succeeds as a repertory company: with so much strength to draw upon, every part is provided a first-class practitioner. Here’s to more of the same, letting both the music and the art speak for itself. JWR