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Gallery Works collective paints terrific Sondheim picture

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STEPHEN Sondheim does not always paint a pretty view of the world. Unlike, say, the French Post-Impressionist George Seurat, celebrated for his pointillist paintings that shimmered with colour.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, well rendered by the Gallery Works collective, the composer and book writer James Lepine imagine the events leading up to the creation of Seurat's iconic work Sunday on La Grande Jatte. From the blank canvas, as represented by a large wall in the Urban Shaman Gallery, the artist sketches the crowd of bourgeois 19th-century Parisians who will be assembled by show's end into a live representation of the painting.

Oh, but Seurat must suffer for his art and his heartache comes from his lover Dot, who Sondheim and Lepine noted was prominently depicted in Sunday on La Grande Jatte, so she must be his mistress. Much of the 80-minute production explores the age-old difficulty of juggling all-consuming careers with romantic relationships.

Dot, a name Sondheim claims had nothing to do with Seurat's pointillism but was a common name of the day, loves that he is obsessed with his art and wishes he would be just as obsessed about her. She's hot for him, and not only because she's been standing out in the sun all day modelling for him. He is not so into her that he will change. "I give what I give," George says about his chronic lack of attention and affection.

That hastens her discovery there may be more to life than acting as the artist's muse. A sadness hangs over the evening due to the realization that their love affair is not to be. She leaves him for a baker who kneads her more.

Gallery Works is presenting only act one of Sunday in the Park with George for SondheimFest, a very defensible decision by director Arne MacPherson, as it was originally presented that way and a dubious second act added later. So we get half the picture. Sondheim described the musical as boy loves girl, boy loves art, boy loses girl. The second act he called boy gets both girl and art 100 years later. This fine production certainly ramps up the curiosity on how Sondheim and Lepine accomplished that.

The world of Seurat's Sunday promenaders is richly evoked visually by designer Michelle Cook's costumes -- the distinctive bussels of the women carrying their parasols and the gentlemen in their suits and top hats. Out of necessity the dogs and monkey, as well as a soldier, are rendered with cardboard cutouts, which dovetails with how Seurat sees all those around him in two dimensions.

The bearded Simon Miron gives a convincing performance in the title role, very much looking the part of the self-absorbed painter willing to pay the emotional price in pursuit of an artistic breakthrough. Both Miron and Erin McGrath, as Dot, posssesed the range and speed to tackle Sondheim's staccato passages in which the short and distinct sounds mirror Seurat's use of small strokes of paint. McGrath was also excellent, selling her heartbreak and almost making us believe Dot will move on without regret.

Sunday also benefits from the ensemble work of David Playfair as the pompous rival artist Jules who sneers half-correctly about Seurat: "No life in his art; no life in his life." The Boatman was played with appropriate gruffness by Murray Farnell and Melanie Whyte offers a nice turn as Seurat's aging mother. Celoris Miller backed the cast flawlessly on piano.

The only gripe about Sunday is with the makeshift venue and its large wooden pillars. It was ironic that virtually everyone in the audience watching the story of a painter searching for a new perspective on art did so from a seat with an obstructed view.

Theatre Review

Sunday in the Park with George

Gallery Works

To Sunday at Urban Shaman Gallery

Tickets: $15

Four stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 D3

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