Review: Porchlight in Concert Brings Broadway Talent and a 40th Anniversary Sondheim Favorite to the Studebaker Theater

Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre is a standout among a crowded landscape of local production companies. Focused on musical theater, their shows—usually presented at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in the Gold Coast—boast talented casts, impressive production design and a generally worthwhile ticket price that supports their ongoing work. So when the company's 2023-2024 season was announced last summer, I took note of an event that, at the time, seemed far off in the distance: a two-performance weekend in May of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, concert-style performances celebrating the show's 40th anniversary.

As far as Sondheim shows go, Sunday in the Park is not one of the most commonly mounted, though it does have a notable tie to Chicago. Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine, who wrote the book to the show, were inspired to imagine the thoughtful, generation-spanning plot after visiting Seurat's famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which lives in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters originated the show's lead roles when it premiered in 1984, and they created indelible versions of some of the show's most memorable numbers: "Finishing the Hat," "Putting It Together," and "Move On."

This weekend's production relocated Porchlight from its Gold Coast home to downtown's recently refurbished and re-opened Studebaker Theater in the historic Fine Arts Building. It was a perfect setting for a show primarily set in the late 19th century, and the extremely limited run (just two performances, one on Saturday and a matinee on Sunday) brought out audiences in full to see Tony Nominee Sean Allen Krill and Kathy Voytko restage this classic.

Presented in two acts that span a century, Sunday in the Park with George begins as the French painter (Krill) is in the midst of sketching various studies for his most ambitious project to date, what would become the pointilism masterpiece we know so well today. At the time, Seurat was rejected by the Impressionist masters and struggled to prove his worth and vision, a journey chronicled in the show alongside a rocky relationship with an artist's model, Dot (Voytko), to whom he struggles to commit, despite ostensibly loving her. As characters emerge throughout the first act, we come to realize their connection to Seurat, Dot or both, as well as to the painting in the works that serves as the show's backdrop, both literally and figuratively.

The "concert" part of "Porchlight in Concert" here means a few considerations that might not otherwise be the case in a full-fledged production. Several actors kept script binders on stage with them during the show, hardly a distraction given the context, and set design was at a minimum, a projected screen up stage displaying scene and time period changes. If the minimalism created a sparse sense of place, it served to highlight the incredible talent on stage. As George both then and now, Krill offers an appropriately anxious, tormented take, a man with great depth of vision and emotion who struggles to articulate it all. Voytko's bold vocals channel Peters herself, and nothing was quite so moving as her heartfelt (and heartbreaking) delivery of lines like "Move On"'s "The choice may have been mistaken; the choosing was not; you have to move on."

Before this weekend's performance, Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber teased that the company would soon be announcing its 2024-2025 season, following a busy summer with the return of Broadway in Your Backyard, including one contemporary musical he mentioned that I won't spoil here (it hasn't been announced to the public yet). But if Sunday in the Park with George and that shall-not-yet-be-named musical are any indication, my love affair with Porchlight continues another year.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Lisa Trifone