The Other Palace, London
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Hannah Chissick
Sunday In The Park With George is probably the most mind-bending, time-bending poly-mesmeric musical of recent decades. Stephen Sondheim (again working his fruitful partnership with book-writer James Lapine) has ingeniously fashioned the show around a study on George Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Act One revolves around Seurat himself, in 1884 Paris. The pointillist painting is taking shape, consuming the artist’s attention as Dot, his mistress and sometime model, endures the rigours of both posing for him and competing for his attention over the emerging picture. The true genius of Sondheim’s work in this half of the show is to build characters and songs around the people that Seurat includes in the picture. As more and more faces and images become defined, the act builds towards a stunning crescendo.
The second half shoots forward 100 years to New York. Georges’ great-grandson – also named George – is an artist, working like his predecessor with color and light. This however is the late 20th century and in place of a canvas, George’s creation is the electronic “Chromolume”. His elderly grandmother Marie (the daughter of Georges and Dot) provides a link through the generations, and as George is invited to France to make a presentation on the eponymous Parisian island, time and characters merge into a whirl, with Sondheim weaving the complex themes of love and art into a tapestry of the human condition.
It says much for the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) that they have amongst their young company the talent and resource to deliver what is unquestionably an impressive take on this most adult of musicals. The narrative demands that Georges / George and Dot / Marie are played by the same performers and Thomas Josling and Laura Barnard make fine work of leading their troupe.
Barnard has form with the NYMT having grown with them over the last couple of years. Josling however is a newcomer and together they create a compelling chemistry. Their duetted numbers are magnificent throughout, with Color and Light proving a particular treat. Amongst their solo responsibilities Josling’s Finishing The Hat is a classy turn, while Barnard’s careful interpretation of Children And Art, captures a special sensitivity.
Chissick has fashioned some gorgeous work from her cast who are all in their teens or early twenties, with the full company numbers proving a delight. Sunday, the pre-interval song (reprised at the finale) is spine-tingling in its intensity. This cast are at their best in the second half, where Sondheim’s dialog allows them a more comfortable immersion into the modern idiom.
Technically, as ever, the NYMT offer creative excellence. Alex Aitken intuitively directs his chamber-sized 6 piece band (also all young players) to deliver Sondheim’s complex melodies, while Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography, Matt Kinley’s set design and Jason Denvir’s costuming go a long way to creating firstly the illusion of Seurat’s 19th century Paris and then after the break, the cliched pretensions of New York’s modern art community.
The themes of Sunday In The Park With George are immense and complex and Chissick, alongside the NYMT should be rightfully proud of what this company has achieved. It's only on for one more night in what is deservedly a sold-out success.
Runs until 19th August
Photo credit: Rob Youngson