by Carol Rocamora
In case you haven’t noticed (but how could you not?!), there’s a Sondheim festival going on in New York this spring.
Three splendid Sondheim revivals have opened recently, offering dramatically different directorial interpretations in strikingly different venues. It’s a cause for renewed celebration of our greatest living American composer and his astonishing oeuvre.
Sunday in the Park With George
First to open (on Broadway) was Sunday in the Park With George, Sondheim’s magical musical about “the art of making art,” as explored through the creative process of Georges Seurat. This radiant revival with a full onstage orchestra features a charismatic performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as the eccentric pointillist painter. From the moment he takes the stage (“White – a blank page of canvas….”), Gyllenhaal holds us spellbound with his confident singing voice and his intense, riveting gaze. No wonder the delightful Annaleigh Ashford, as his mistress/model Dot, sings: “Your eyes, Georges, I love your eyes….”
Directed by Sarna Lapine (whose uncle James wrote the book and directed the 1984 premiere), the show flows with ease and grace. Thanks to the imaginative Beowulf Boritt (set) and Christopher Ash (projections), “Sunday Afternoon on The Grande Jatte” – Seurat’s masterpiece and Act One’s centerpiece – comes vividly alive.
As for the challenging Act Two that takes place generations later in Chicago (with Gyllenhaal as Seurat’s grandson and Ashford as Seurat’s daughter), the creative team provides a stunning finale when the grandson’s spectacular “chromolumes” shower the audience with their phosphorescent glow. “Color and light” – the refrain to Sondheim’s celestial score – aptly describes this luminous production. (now closed)
As for Sondheim’s “dark side,” his wicked, wonderful Sweeney Todd is getting a riveting revival by Britain’s Tooting Arts Club at the tiny Barrow Theatre. Its interior has been converted into Mrs. Lovett’s infamous pie shop, where 120 “customers” cram into the tiny space, seated on long tables where they can be served fresh pies before the show. Some are also perched in the balcony, where they can gawk at this Gothic story of relentless, remorseless revenge.
It’s a stark contrast to Hal Prince’s Broadway production (1979), but this immersive approach works like black magic. The actors fill the entire pie shop, circling around the terror-stricken customers. As the “demon barber of Fleet Street,” Jeremy Secomb stalks the space, seeking his victims with murderous determination. Watch out – he actually jumps on the long tables and gets right “in your face”! Siobhán McCarthy offers a droll and irresistible Mrs. Lovett, his partner-in-crime and would-be paramour. Miraculously, a trio of musicians (piano, violin, clarinet) succeeds in bringing the complex, cacophonous score to vibrant life.
The marvel of this site-specific Sweeney Todd, directed with perverse glee by Bill Buckhurst, is that it delivers its moral while taking us for a thrilling ride. “The history of the world, my sweet,” sings Sweeney, “is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Bon appetit!
New leads are in place, namely Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.
Yesterday, Classic Stage Company opened an elegant Pacific Overtures, Sondheim’s exotic study of isolationist Japan in 1853, directed by John Doyle, CSC’s new artistic director. Doyle already made Sondheim history with his radically minimalist Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 2006, in which his actors all played musical instruments (including Patti LuPone on the tuba).
With Pacific Overtures, Doyle has maintained this minimalist approach, although he has Jonathan Tunick’s gorgeous orchestrations of Sondheim’s score played by an eight-instrument ensemble, while ten actors in contemporary dress enact all the roles. Doyle himself designed the set – an empty space consisting of a huge expanse of white flooring, representing the paper upon which the Japanese-American treaty was designed. It suits Sondheim’s lyrics describing Japan as a “floating island” in history and time.
With this spare, stripped-down approach, Doyle has illuminated the relevance of Pacific Overture to America’s current, alarming retreat into isolationism. “We live in a time when theatre has a job to do that it hasn’t been doing for a while, and that is to ask the political questions,” says Doyle. His bold production has the vision and clarity to do just that.
Sweeney Todd, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeter, directed by Bill Buckhurst, now at Barrow Street Theatre; Pacific Overtures, book by John Weidman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, at Classic Stage Company extended till June 18; Sunday In The Park With George, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, at the Hudson Theatre (closed April 23)