PORCHLIGHT’S SUNDAY IN THE PARK TOPS 23-24 CHICAGO THEATER SEASON

Our arrival at the gorgeous jewel box Studebaker Theater on South Michigan Avenue was a hall of mirrors experience. On the left hand side was the venerable Art Institute, home to George Seurat’s famous painting., the inspiration for the acclaimed musical Sunday in the Park with George we were about to see. The musical ‘s first half imagined the process of creating the masterpiece. The second half brings the painter’s grandson and grandmother to that very Art Institute for a commemoration of the famous Seurat painting with comments by the guests of honor and a presentation of the young artists latest work the Chromolume 7. An Art Institute reception follows. The experience was beginning to seem like a Russian doll experience, one Sunday in another Sunday, one Seurat in another, and on and on.

This production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George would be our first. Later we compared the Porchlight production with the famous Mandy Patinkin/Bernadette Peters film and, surprise, surprise, shock, shock found the Porchlight production more, much more enjoyable. In fact we concluded that the limited run production was the best theatrical experience we had had  during a full and exciting 2023-24 Chicago theater season, which, bucking national trends,  featured many many full houses and extended runs : The Girl from the North Country; Lyric Opera’s Cinderella, Jenufa, Daughter of the Regiment, and West Side Story;  Porchlight’s Anything Goes; Timeline’s The Lehman Trilogy; Steppenwolf’s No Man’s Land; Mercury’s Big River; Goodman’s Cherry Orchard and The Who’s Tommy.

How is it possible that a show billed as merely “in concert”, with no more than two weeks to rehearse could rise to such heights in the theatre capital of the United States, Chicago?

First of all, the passage of time has allowed the immediate dazzle of the original Sunday in the Park to settle and sort itself out.  The forty years since its heralded opening had benefited this production. Gone were the cumbersome wing and groove setting of the original, replaced, intelligently by Rachel West’s lighting design and Liviu Pasare’s projection design, giving George Seurat, the explorer of light and the human eye, a more appropriate theatrical frame. The star power of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters may have overshadowed James Lapine’s characters as audiences arrived to see the stars rather than the characters.  Porchlight puts the characters front and center with some of the most able musical theater performers in the area.  One could not imagine a finer Dot/Marie than Kathy Voytko. Her very presence was riveting, the audience feared missing a single brilliant nuance. Sean Allan Krill was more than her match as George Seurat/George, eschewing the Patinkin “look-at-me” style in favor of a more generous partnership creating  what in the sports world would be called “assists”, allowing Ms. Voytko to hit acting home runs almost at will. (I do not mean to disparage Mr. Patinkin or Ms. Peters. They did in fact all of the hard work to give birth to these characters, so that subsequent actors like Ms. Voytko and Mr. Krill could soar.)

Second, the director Michael Weber. He confirms his status as theatrical magician par excellence with brilliant casting, superior time-management, and wide knowledge of theatre. He remains a Chicago treasure.

Third the Studebaker Theater itself. If Mr. Weber is a treasure, the Studebaker is the treasure chest. Unlike the warehouse known as the Harris Theater, the Studebaker is an aesthetic pleasure, a glory from another age, elegantly restored. Since 1895 the venerable theater has hosted visiting companies from around the world. Electricity baron Samuel Insull financed the Repertoire Theater Company for his actress wife, to be based in the Studebaker Theater. An August 1, 1926 press release proclaimed that its offerings—new plays by American authors with selected revivals of popular works—would be “on the same level as New York’s best.” Showing either faith in her ambition or dogged determination to save his marriage, Insull leased the Studebaker for five years.  Notable productions from this time included James Kirkwood and Mercedes Gilbert in “Mulatto” by Langston Hughes in 1936; Ethel Barrymore in “The Corn is Green” in 1943; Mae West in “Catherine the Great” in 1945; and Yul Brynner in “Lute Song” in 1947. The Studebaker Theater hosted a variety of groups and touring productions during this time.

To continue on the Porchlight’s triumph at the Studebaker, suburban area theater professionals should take a page from Cleveland’s Apollo’s Fire’s playbook and book some performances of their regular season at the Studebaker. The effort would require joint design consultation, as the Lyric Opera  does with other national opera companies when they share production sets and costumes. But the historic downtown Chicago theater audience would, I believe, devour the kind of high quality productions now only available in the suburbanites’ territories.

While celebrating Porchlight’s great theatrical and artistic triumph, city theater planners should seize on the moment’s glory to plan for the possibility of more such Sundays in The Park. In the meanwhile, we will be planning our own Act III of the musical – a return to the Art Institute for yet another look at the great George Seurat pointillist masterpiece.

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