With several years of experience behind them, local Sondheim experts Watch This turn their attention to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s revered 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, achieving particular success with the gorgeous music.
Melbourne’s once-booming independent musical scene is well and truly off the boil, so the prospect of a lovingly produced boutique musical is a welcome one indeed. Watch This appears to have grown in confidence, presenting a visually appealing, very well cast staging of this cherished classic. Projections, costumes and sound are also at a premium.
Having already played Nunawading and Geelong, Watch This’ new production of Sunday in the Park with George arrives at the Southbank Theatre in well realised form. Given the four day/six performance season at this theatre, the show is brightly polished and securely staged.
The black box of The Lawler is transformed into a handsome proscenium arch space, with a bold white frame behind timeless wooden floorboards. A rear white cyclorama displays cleverly utilised animation from Milked Studios, as keenly focused painter Georges Seurat gradually creates his masterful work, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Early projections support Seurat’s painstaking approach, as he positions his model (and lover) Dot’s arm and head to match the image projected onto her white dress. The famous painting develops from sketches to full colour, and, in a clever touch, stays on the screen during interval so as to directly link the two acts, set 100 years apart.
Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares have brought a sense of broad comedy to the supporting roles. While this is not entirely in line with the usual sensibility of the piece, there is a very clear sense of which scenes are actually happening to Georges and Dot, and which ones are the heightened, imagined lives of the characters seen in the painting. The deliberate cacophony of speaking voices comes together in lush harmony for the glorious climax of act one finale “Sunday,” repeating the feat at the end of act two with a rich reprise of “Sunday.”
Musical director Ned Wright-Smith works wonders with a band of only four fellow musicians, generating a suitably full sound to support the gorgeous vocals.
A major artistic achievement of the production is the stunning, expertly realised costume design of Rhiannon Irving, who has outfitted all of Georges’ subjects in the dotted style that is the key feature of his work. Irving achieves an eye-catching, attractive effect with finely painted dots in carefully chosen colours arranged precisely to highlight contours in the costumes. One of several highlights is the Old Lady’s burgundy dress, with beautifully ruched skirt.
Nick Simpson-Deeks gives a highly focused yet neatly underplayed lead performance, capturing the introverted drive of Seurat. Deeks compensates for Seurat’s apparent heartlessness with tender vocals, particularly those in “Beautiful,” when Georges sings with his dear Mother.
Vidya Makan adopts a forthright persona as Dot, perhaps making the young woman less demure than she may have been in her day. In act two, Makan crafts an absolutely charming characterisation as plucky, wheelchair-bound Marie, delivering a touching rendition of “Children and Art.”
Amidst the high volume characters of act one, the genteel presence of Jackie Rees is all class, bringing a lovely air of grace to the Old Lady. Further sterling support comes from Anton Berezin as artist turned art dealer Jules.
Each member of the ensemble cast is clearly an excellent singer, and the various characters in each act are created with distinction. To name just one highlight, Georgina Hopson created a splash as gauche society doyenne Harriet Pawling.
Melbourne is well fortunate indeed to have a musical theatre company devoted to Stephen Sondheim; future presentations will continue to be gratefully received.
Sunday in the Park with George plays at The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 24 August 2019.
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson