“Oh, just when you feel that the tune might begin …” So sang Kit Hesketh-Harvey in “People Who Like Sondheim”, a memorable send-up of the composer’s style. Quite. Some of us at the Châtelet’s new staging of Sondheim’s musical on Georges Seurat – its first outing in France – found ourselves nodding in agreement.
This is intendant Jean-Luc Choplin’s third Sondheim after introducing Parisians to A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, and it is certainly the stingiest of the three on melody. Even in a new orchestration by Michael Starobin, Sondheim’s score often seems contrived, leaving you panting for a burst of Rodgers and Hammerstein to hum on the métro home.
What is not in doubt is Sondheim’s uncanny ability to vary his subject matter. Using Seurat’s painting “A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” as the basis for a reflection on art and artists was a strikingly original idea. And no matter if the second act starring his (fictional) American grandson George – a seemingly talentless video artist – undermines the message that creators should stick to their guns and “move on”.
Lee Blakeley, who directed the other two shows with panache, has again pulled out all the stops. The cast move confidently through William Dudley’s revolving set amid state-of-the-art video backdrops. In these de luxe conditions, the house amplification system is only a minor irritation.
The cast is simply terrific, led by Julian Ovenden’s stunning Georges/George, a fresh and tuneful light baritone who turns on a faultless US accent for the second act set in Chicago. Not everyone in the mostly British cast is as successful at the transition but there are only a few major lapses into Home County vowels. Sophie-Louise Dann does a nice common touch as Dot, the artist’s mistress, and Rebecca de Pont Davies, as his mother, gives her song the grand Handelian contralto treatment.
David Charles Abell conducts a full orchestra – Radio France’s second formation – with rhythmic precision but tends to saturate the sound system with decibels. A chamber formation would have served just as well. Sondheim gets a rousing ovation at curtain call. One essay in the programme calls him the “Ravel of Broadway”, which seems a bit rich. Another more accurately labels him “Proteus” for his ability to change forms.
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