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opera review: ‘sunday in the park with george’

Ensemble in the 'Sunday on La Grande Jatte' tableau

Ensemble in the ‘Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ tableau

When Georges Seurat completed A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in 1884 he could only have dreamed of the iconic status the painting would achieve. He would, no doubt, have wanted to demonstrate his artistic credentials and silence his many critics. Inspiring a Pulitzer Prize winning musical one hundred years later was probably not one of his ambitions.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George is a playful musical that draws its inspiration from Seurat’s painting.  In another twist, an opera company, Victorian Opera, is currently performing the acclaimed show, which premiered off-Broadway in 1984. Director Stuart Maunder and Conductor Phoebe Briggs work together to present an engaging rendition of this masterpiece of modern musical theatre.

Sunday in the Park with George tells the fictional story of the characters in Seurat’s iconic painting of Parisians gathered leisurely on an island located in the river Seine, as well as that one who is not in the painting: the artist.  Audiences are invited to peer behind the canvas and get a glimpse of the way in which Seurat created the painting – which is composed of a series of coloured dots that are mixed by the human eye to form a picture – in a style known as Pointillism. The everyday lives of those featured in the work, some of them indulgent, others tragic, are imaginatively brought to life.

Alexander Lewis as George and Christina O’Neill as Dot

Alexander Lewis as George and Christina O’Neill as Dot

Alexander Lewis plays the driven George, while his aptly titled lover Dot is played by Christina O’Neill. Each deliver polished performances, yet there is a lack of chemistry between the two. This was noticeable in their duet Color and Light in Act I. Nancye Hayes stands out in her performance of George’s elderly mother, while the rest of the cast is solid. The chorus’ gentle rendition of Sunday is a highlight.

The sound quality let down the otherwise smooth production. It seemed the performers were wearing microphones which, combined with their forced American accents, detracted from the performances. This was the case with the whole cast, and perhaps revealed the contrast between opera, which Victorian Opera usually stages, and musical theatre.  Orchestra Victoria was, as aways, flawless in their rendition of Sondheim’s abstract music.

Anna Cordingley’s set design and costumes are the real masterpieces of Sunday in the Park with George. The vibrant costumes not only bring to life Seurat’s paintings, but also contribute to the sense of fantasy the production evokes. This is also seen in the set, which features a series of moving panels on which fragments of the great painting appear, in both colour and black and white at different times during the production. In Act II, Cordingley’s clever set design helps transport viewers into the unexpected and surreal direction the musical takes.

 Victorian Opera’s Sunday in the Park with Gorge is a visually and aurally engaging production. While neither the music nor the script are challenging for performers and audiences alike, they playfully touch on themes of love, passion and loss. This is an accomplished and engaging production which, judging by the smiles on the audiences, is sure to be a crowd pleaser.


Victorian Opera’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ is showing at the Playhouse, Melbourne until July 27. See  Victorian Opera’s website for information about performances and tickets.


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