On Wednesday, June 17, Howard Kane and I drove all the way to the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake to take in a matinee of Sunday In the Park with George, at the Royal George Theatre. We were by far the youngest people there, a busload of seniors from something called ElderHostel having been bussed in earlier. Being Sondheim fanatics, we couldn’t wait for it to start, but 20 minutes into the performance, I could tell that it wasn’t working for either of us. Howard blamed the leads, Steven Sutcliffe and Julie Martell, but he also didn’t like the directing by Alisa Palmer. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what didn’t click. It’s a very ambitious play, and I certainly admired the stagecraft, with all those gauze-covered panels zipping back and forth recreating the painting of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The music was also well performed. It wasn’t until I went home and watched a DVD of the original production, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, that I realized that Howard was probably right.
Just two weeks earlier, Howard had directed a version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, starring the teenagers he teaches at his school, the Children’s Theatre Project in Richmond Hill. I have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than Shaw’s George. Maybe it was the sight of cute kids struggling with such tough songs. Woods is a simpler, sweeter show, an examination of what happens after the Happily Ever After part of fairy tales. Sunday, an examination of the cost of creativity, spares no one, even providing a second act set in the bloated art market of the 80s. But both shows are so damn well written that almost any production would satisfy. At his best, Sondheim was better than anyone else. Both those kids Howard teaches and the actors at Shaw must benefit from performing such excellent material.