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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London

By Michael Coveney


Odd, challenging, unique. That is the least you can say of this insinuating 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, the first of their three collaborations and arguably their best (though, personally, I prefer Into The Woods). A musical about art, and the difficulty of art, is surely a contradiction in terms. Musicals are supposed to be carefree zones of delight and delirium.

On Broadway, of course, the show made Bernadette Peters a star. She played Dot, the model/wife/muse of the 19th century pointillist painter Georges Seurat whose composition, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," is the animated backdrop to a personal confession by Sondheim that "art isn't easy." Well, no, but we don't care about that. We've just turned up to have a good time in the theater.

Eventually, we do care about the difficulty problem because Daniel Evans as both George the painter and, in the contemporary second act, George's great-grandson, a New York conceptual artist, brings such fire and intelligence to the double role.

New young director Sam Buntrock's production was a sell-out success the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, south London, at the end of last year. It comes up sharp, bright and sassy at the beautiful Wyndham's, Timothy Bird's animations and projections-an art work in themselves-coming across as more wittily focussed within the confines of the traditional proscenium and David Farley's taut, tight white canvas design.

Perhaps we should just pause at this moment to wish Steven Pimlott, the musical's first British director (at the National in 1990), a successful fight against the cancer that was diagnosed at the end of May. His version, with Philip Quast and Maria Freedman as Dot, was impressive but somehow just a little, well, aridly pretentious.

The thing about this production is its simplicity and urgency; it really does seem to be about starting from scratch, and the brilliant new orchestrations by Jason Carr, for just five instrumentalists, apply a complementary sense of "newness" and improvisation.

At the Menier, Anna Jane Casey brought great warmth to the role of George's muse in the first half and his ancient granny in the second. Her Wyndham's replacement, Jenna Russell, so wonderful as Sarah Brown in the recent Guys And Dolls revival, is more studied, more arch, and less moving as both the flighty Dot and the old wise woman.

But she takes her place in this great gallery of animated figures in a landscape, puppets on a palette. Sondheim and Lapine set about humanizing the art objects. And the art objects. "It's Hot Up Here" they sing as the sun, and the color, trap them in time. The idea of replication in the Seurat painting is wittily extended to the doubling of the soldier, and of George, with full-size projected images. And wittiest of all, another great Seurat painting, "Bathers at Asnières," invades the first.

Some of the score I still find immobilized by its own artiness. But when the rhythmic pulse quickens under Evans's "Finishing The Hat," or syncopations nibble at harmonies in the ensemble "Putting It Together," you share the discovery of impatient genius hitting exactly the right expression. The musical direction is by Caroline Humphris, and there is much to enjoy in the performances of Gay Soper as an old crone, and Liza Sadovy and Simon Green as a couple of bourgeois hangers-on.


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