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Monday 2nd March
Sunday in the Park with George
Review: Spencer Leigh
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
The theatrical productions at the Paul McCartney Auditorium at LIPA are the best-kept secrets in Liverpool...
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The final year degree students presented the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday In The Park With George, for three nights at the end of February and although there was a healthy attendance (mostly of LIPA students) on the night I went, there were also many empty seats. I hope that this review will encourage readers to seek out their programme of events and attend the study of Mozart and his rival in Amadeus or the comedy musical, Little Shop Of Horrors.

The film, Girl With A Pearl Earring, tells the story, largely fictitious, of a famous painting, and, in 1984, James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) attempted something similar with George Seurat’s pointilist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte. We witness a moving tableau as Seurat (Peter Howe) paints his masterpiece, shifting trees, animals and characters as the mood takes him. This scene from the 1880s is contrasted with the 1980s where his great-grandson (Kevin Kemp) is paying homage via avant-garde music with a light show, similar to the presentations we see at the Bluecoat Gallery.

Sunday In The Park With George is a three-hour musical and yet it only contains one recognisable song, Putting It Together. Most of the score is in flecks and snatches, rather the way that Seurat paints (which is obviously the point) and there is one scene in which Seurat is painting his model and mistress, Dot (!), powdering her body where their dabbing movements are complemented by the score.

The musical is about creativity, be it music, art or anything else. Both the opening and closing lines relate the beauty of a white canvas or a white sheet of paper - “so many possibilities”. There are discussions on the nature of work - is being an artist as important as being a boatman, and is work what you do for others, while art is what you do for yourself? As one song says, the two things that endure are children and art. So as not to be too highfalutin, the script is peppered with good jokes - the grandson refers to Seurat’s work as “the family tree” and his assistant wants to return to NASA as there is less pressure there.

I did want more information - Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime so how come he could afford to spend two years on this enormous project? How did he make his living? If the authors did not put it in the script, then perhaps it should be in a programme note. Another plus point incidentally - the programmes are free.

The acting and singing is very good and I will be keeping my programme to check in ten years’ time which of these youngsters are recognisable names, but having the cast all of an age does present a few problems. The 98 year old still looks a fresh-complexioned 20-something and a tall and slender student had to play a young girl. Jo Toop, the actress playing Seurat’s mother was the best at disguising the age difference, although she may not take that as a compliment! Emma Nowell, playing Dot, has a lovely and expansive voice, which was by far the most impressive vocal performance - and she looked great too. Peter Howe as Seurat was very good and although his voice was limited, the comedy number in which he imitates two dogs was hilarious.

Sunday In The Park With George is a hugely complex production to mount and hence, it is rarely staged. It involves a cast of 17, considerable scenery and lighting effects, a five piece band and songs that must be immensely difficult to learn. Under the direction of Nick Phillips, the cast, the musicians and the technicians all did extremely well and they must get a great kick out of doing something so professional as this is an amateur production in name only.

Considering the serious nature of much of the work, I was disappointed with the audience who treated it at times like a student revue, laughing when one of their friends had to adopt an alien accent or stance - they really should know better. Whatever anyone got out of it (and for some the musical would be too pretentious), the resounding applause at the end was very well deserved.

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