Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stirring ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

Ok — let’s get to the point(alism): Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Sunday in the Park with George is nothing short of a triumph.

Sunday, which, in act one, is loosely based on the life of 19th century painter Georges Seurat, and in act two, a fictionalized examination of the legacy his work has left behind, fills a special place in my heart. Pegasus Players’ 2001 production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Pulitzer Prize-winning musical holds the honor as the very first show I saw as a Chicago resident. I’ve since seen four other local productions, including the 2002 production Gary Griffin directed in ChiShakes’ upstairs space, which featured a vibrant performance by Andrea Burns as Dot.

Sunday offers a creative challenge for any theatre — large or small. The piece — which addresses the highly personal process of creating art, and the sacrifices one makes in gaining professional, artistic and commercial success in its development — requires a director with vision, two strong leads, a strong ensemble, smart design work and a music director that can handle the complex staccato score.

ChiShakes’ deeply satisfying production meets all these challenges with masterful perfection. It’s worth noting that Griffin’s work here isn’t revelatory — i.e., there are no overt staging gimmicks like in his 2002 effort which placed the action in a runway flanked by audience members. Aside from a few smartly chosen surprises, this Sunday follows the template created by Lapine in the original 1984 Broadway production (which can easily be revisited thanks to it being filmed and released commercially on DVD). However, two key things make this iteration so completely satisfying.

First is the casting of the leads. The golden-voiced Jason Danieley makes for an introverted, tightly wound Georges in Act 1, and a driven yet frustrated George in Act 2.

However, unlike any production I’ve seen before (and this includes the 2004 Ravinia concert starring the luminous Audra McDonald) Dot owns this show, thanks to Carmen Cusack’s fearless, sexy and ferociously sung performance. This is a Dot who knows exactly what she wants, and it breaks her heart that she won’t be able to get it. Indeed, she will “move on,” despite the pain. And in Act 2, she captivates in her simple and earnest performance of “Children and Art,” a melancholy lullaby about the legacy one leaves behind.

Several Chicago veterans round out the luxuriously cast ensemble, including McKinley Carter as Yvonne/Betty, Heidi Kettenring as Frieda/Mrs./Elaine and Kevin Gudahl and Mr./Bob Greenberg. But perhaps one of my favorite moments is Linda Stephens’ haunting performance of “Beautiful,” where she laments the loss of “the old view.” This is not only a perfect theatre song, but it captures what I feel is the essence of the piece — that the world is changing so fast, and art can capture the moments we wish to remember, as we wish to remember them.

The other key success of this production is Mike Tutaj’s projections, which bring us into the world of the Seurat’s genius without overwhelming the action. Some productions I’ve seen get caught up in the aesthetic of the piece, which pulls us away from the heart of the show. Not here — the notions of pain, love and sacrifice one takes to realize their vision are front and center. (And sounding glorious in the process, thanks to Brad Haak’s expert music direction.)

“Sunday in the Park with George” plays through November 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. More info here >

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