Sunday in the Park with George | Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble (MUSE)

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being trapped in a conversation with someone emphatically asking, “What does art do? What is the point of it?” Or maybe you’ve been the one doing the trapping. Either way, it became a desperate, high-stakes question when the COVID-19 pandemic began ripping through the art scene in 2020 and Australian artists were hung out to dry without their audiences. And, yet, the question of art’s purpose stretches back centuries, as illustrated in this second production of the year from the Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble.

Sunday in the Park with George nearly didn’t happen. After Merrily We Roll Along opened in 1981 to wide criticism and closed after 52 previews and 16 performances, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim declared his intention to quit musical theatre altogether. But after striking inspiration in the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat and with prodding from James Lapine, the two went on to imagine the life and legacy of a fictionalised George (Nic Savage) in a story that explores the role of the artist and their relationship with their work, audience, and world.

George is a struggling painter in Paris in the late 19th century. He is obsessive and focused but he has never sold a painting and is struggling to get and maintain the backing of established artists like Jules (Declan Downling). He hangs around the parks of Paris, sketching strangers and developing a reputation amongst other regulars like Jules’s staff Franz (Alex Paterson) and Frieda (Kate Ecob), young women Celeste (Eleanor Fair) and Celeste (Isabella Habib), and some visiting Americans (Eddie Langford and Tali Greenfield). His work has affected his personal life, too, as his model and lover Dot (Hannah Stewart) announces both that she’s pregnant with his baby and she’s going to marry the baker Louis (Will Kilgour) and move to the United States. Flash forward to the current day and George’s grandson George (Savage) is also an artist making technical electronic sculptures to be displayed alongside iconic works just like “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. His mother (Stewart) always held on to the family story of their connection to Seurat and encourages George to return to Paris and reconnect with the place and people that inspired his grandfather over 100 years ago.

Sunday in the Park with George is one of Sondheim’s lesser performed musicals perhaps due to its more subtle characterisations, smaller stakes, and simple plot. It’s a script that appeals particularly to other artists who recognise the conflict of balancing the work with other aspects of your life, the way George turns his art into a duty that he must sacrifice all else to. At the same time as the story focuses on George, the influence of the surrounding community of Parisian park dwellers in the 1800s and the gallery visitors in 2022 forms the bulk of the exploration of art as a medium for connection not only between the work and the audience, but art as a means of focusing the eye on the real world, too.

Director Hannah Burton realised this relation through the opening motif repeated throughout the production of the cast posing as the people in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. The costume design by Davina Oh and Rachel Simmons faithfully rendered those of the painting while set designers Paris, Emma O’Brien, and Thomas Hennessey placed the edges of a frame around the stage as a literal recreation of the painting and a symbolic representation of the musical moving between art and life. Additionally, the set design included standees of trees and dogs to recreate the park as well as a couch and platform to transition to George’s studio before using future George’s iridescent sculpture to signal the modern day gallery. Other elements of Burton’s direction borrowed from previous stagings of Sunday in the Park with George with choreography that matched characters’ movements to Sondheim’s sharp, “pointy” compositions while integrating a lighting design by Evan Burke and Nikki Eghlimi that used splatters of coloured spots to represent the pointillist painting style Seurat developed.

With so much focus on the visuals, there were other aspects of the production that felt lacking such as the atmosphere of the park. The stage in the ARA Darling Quarter Theatre is wide and the characters struggled to make the park feel full as they popped in and out for their various rendezvous. This could have been assisted with a rushed, overlapping pacing but this production chose instead to linger, pausing between entrances and exits, spreading out conversations in a leisurely manner that further thinned the action. Later, in the current time at the art gallery, George dipped in and out of conversations with other artists, donors, and museum staff with hatstands used as stand-ins for his person. This was a creative touch but under-rehearsed which made the movements inelegant when they should have been sharp and orderly. Without these considerations of space, pacing, and movement, the overall effect on the production was messy and distracting, serving to weaken an already thin plot scaffold.

Music director and conductor Daniel Baykitch did well to harness the performers’ voices for gentle solos and pretty harmonies in songs like “It’s Hot Up Here”. There were some impressive performances, particularly from the central cast who brought both strong vocal skills and interest in character to the stage. Savage was understandably stiff and cold as the painter but, as his grandson, he was able to loosen up and open up his performance style into a more engaging and dynamic performance. Stewart was well-balanced as Dot navigating her love for George as well as her pride, and she gave a beautiful performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” before displaying good humour later in “Everybody Loves Louis”. As the failing Marie in the second-half, Stewart was equally charming with a keen ear for comic timing. The other stand-out performances came from Downling, who brought welcome enthusiasm and overt physicality to both Jules and the museum curator Bob Greenberg, and Maddie Maronese as Jules’s wife Yvonne, who played the reserved snobbish Parisian woman with an easy and relaxed air.

There is a lot of humour to be found in Sunday in the Park with George, especially in the snide remarks and side-eyes from “art people” or the scampering affairs amongst the background characters of the park, but fully harnessing that humour required a firmer and finer touch than this production demonstrated. That being said, the overarching themes of connection, purpose, and art came through in MUSE’s production and reiterated the importance of valuing art above profit or reputation.

Sunday in the Park with George ran at the ARA Darling Quarter Theatre from August 17th – 20th

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