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Hats off to Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Sunday in the Park’



When: Through Nov. 4

Where: Chicago Shakespeare
Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $48-$78

Info: (312) 595-5600;

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:08AM

Even if “Sunday in the Park With George” were the only musical Stephen Sondheim had ever written, he could easily stroll across a grassy field, lie down beneath a great shade tree, and enjoy the human circus passing by, happily relaxed in the knowledge that he had created a work of art that would last as long as the practice of theater itself.

Of course the complete list of Sondheim musicals is great and glorious. But director Gary Griffin’s radiant, heart-wrenching Chicago Shakespeare Theater revival of “Sunday in the Park” reveals the special quality that sets this show apart from all others. For not only does it “bring order to the whole through design, composition, balance, light and harmony,” but it makes all those who experience it feel more fully alive. You can sense the wonder it triggers in the audience. And if they do not necessarily leave the theater happier, or less full of regrets, frustrations, jealousies and all the rest, they certainly leave feeling more whole, more connected. And of course connection — whether to another person, or to an artistic vision — is what this 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical (devised with James Lapine, Sondheim’s invaluable collaborator) is all about.

Griffin and his collaborators have brought countless subtle insights as well as innovations both large and small to this production, which spins the story of the creation of the painting and the relationship betweenGeorge (Jason Danieley) and his mistress-model, Dot (Carmen Cusack). Then, in the second act, it fancifully imagines how, a century later, George’s great-grandson, living in America, tries to navigate the art world of his time. In describing the delights of this production, perhaps it is best to follow the lead of Sondheim’s version of Georges Seurat, the French pointillist painter whose iconic 1884 work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is one of the treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. So to start, there is “the blank page or canvas,” full of possibilities. And Griffin’s production fittingly begins with an empty studio, defined solely by white picture frames.

Gradually, with the help of that wizardly projection designer, Mike Tutaj, the movable landscape of the park just outside Paris that is the backdrop for Seurat’s painting comes into view. Then, as if layering the stage with a series of sketches that will meld into the final picture, all the living, breathing actors begin to people the theatrical canvas, bringing with them their eccentricities and irritations, their jealousies and short tempers, their wandering eyes and abiding loves. The painting begins, quite literally, to assume life.

Intriguingly, what this production does best of all is to suggest how the artist stands apart — observing the life around him. George the intense, obsessive, essentially solitary, emotionally contained young painter, is bravely understated at the start, always watching from just outside the frame, while his engaged and engaging lover, Dot (Carmen Cusack, delicate, beautiful and fiery), clearly wants to feel and be felt by other people as opposed to “capturing” them in paint. In fact, it is something of a shock when George finally reveals himself in “Finishing the Hat,” the stunning soliloquy in which he lets us into his world and his heart.

Cusack gives us a Dot who tries vainly to get his attention in a way that is meaningful to her. Unable to do so, she becomes palpably angry, and the actress makes us feel that Dot’s decision to go off to America with the plump, life-sustaining baker, Louis, is both a pragmatic one (she has just given birth to George’s baby), as well as a bit of a spiteful one. (Two wonderful costume coups, courtesy of designer Mara Blumenthal, further add to Dot’s flair.)

Yet for theatrical coups, none can match the show’s first-act finale in which Seurat’s painting is breathtakingly assembled, though Griffin admirably does not let the second act pale. He makes sure the tone deftly shifts to 1980s museum politics, as George is now a harried young artist who sculpts with light and is oppressed by the need to market himself, while his grandmother urges him on, and talks about the spirit of her mother, Dot. Danieley and Cusack make the transitions beautifully. And in one of the director’s most inspired touches, when George visits La Grande Jatte for the first time he truly communes with ghosts, for now all the characters are dressed in white, like “unpainted” versions of their former selves.

The Sondheim score is gloriously sung (applause for Brad Haak’s musical direction), with Danieley and Cusack bringing real ferocity to their duet, “We Do Not Belong Together,” and Linda Stephens (as Georges’ cranky mother) joining Danieley for a transcendent version of “Beautiful,” a song about change whose exquisite echo in the second act comes in the form of “Move On.”

Remarkable change is the essence of the work of the show’s many fine supporting actors who transform themselves from one century to another. And seated high above the stage, the orchestra, superbly conducted by Ryan T. Nelson, does full justice to this musical that brings a true third dimension to the two-dimensional masterpiece that inspired it.

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