The only disadvantage to going to see Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" in a place called "The Chocolate Factory" is the whole night my inner child was going, "Chocolate? When are we going to get chocolate?" "There's no chocolate." "But, but...it's on the sign. Chocolate?" The building was built in the 1870s and during renovations they dug up a whole roomfull of artefacts (which are on display) from ancient Roman times to gascocks, spades, metal sign stencils, ropes and other debris from the Victorians onward. Such is London.
But enough about the theatre! I left my notes at home, so bear with me. The show, if you're not familiar, is based on this painting:
and follows the lives of the people in it, as well as the painter, George Surrat and his mistress, Dot. I didn't know this show, except that at the end of act one they actually "build" the painting with the actors. So when I sat down in the theatre, my first thought was, "how are they going to do this?" The stage was raked slightly, with thick wooden boards. Upstage a large blank white wall, two white trees, to either side, slightly diagonal walls with doors. All white. Very boring. So when Surratt came out and sat down and started to draw and his drawings began to APPEAR on the very white upstage wall, I gave a little gasp of delight (literally) and had to cover my mouth for sheer joy. Projected scenery! Ah, at last I understand!
Yes, three huge projectors were shining the scenery on the blank walls and doors. But not just scenery--at one point you had a team of rowers moving down the river, or painted people upstage walking through the park as the actors downstage performed. The space was not very large, maybe only twenty feet up and down, and thirty five or so across, so this really economised space. But it was act two where the projections really began to work. George (by now a modern artist) is schmoozing with all the people who have come to his gallery opening--and at one point you have three different projections of the actor "working" the crowd, responding to actors. My favourite part was where a projection held out an empty glass and a real waiter "poured" champagne into it! The bottle was real--the champagne was not. Another favourite part happened when the skivvy boatman was talking about his dog and he gestured to a blank canvas stage right--Where a little dog suddenly appeared, sniffing and barking. The other animals were also projected during the final part of act one. George positioned canvases where the dogs and monkey appeared and the animals "ran on" and took their places. It was AWESOME. And if I ever get a team of six people to help me build projected scenery into my show, I will do it because at last I understand the possibilities.
Having said all that--the show itself was amazing too. This is supposed to be the most "Sondheim" of all Sondheim shows, and I can see where it gets that from. Usually I don't like to go see musicals without an understanding of the score first, but in this case I could understand all the lyrics and I was close enough to be able to hear everything. (at one point I smelled something burning and looked up in alarm to realise that the skivvy boatman had merely lit his pipe) The actors were brilliant, especially with the American accents in Act 2. And the music was thrilling. Not the most accessible of scores, but very appropriate to the subject matter and the characters.
On a postscript--throughout the first act, George kept humming this song: "bum bum bum, Bum bum bum bum bum bum..." and I kept saying to myself, "how do I know this song? I don't know this show!" But then at the end of Act 1 when the company sang the song, "Sunday" I finally realised that Jonathan Larsen had "borrowed" it for HIS song called "Sunday" from "Tick Tick BOOM!" and that Larsen's song was an homage to this piece of music. That was a little extra unexpected piece of theatre and I was struck by how much overlapping there was centered around this piece of art, this show, this moment in history.
PPS: The Chocolate Factory also did "Tick Tick BOOM!" I saw a poster hanging in their lobby. It starred Neil Patrick Harris who later went on to do "Assassins" with Michael Ceveris who is now doing "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway. So there's your seven degrees for the day, and I am sick of Sondheim.
On the web: http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/