Sunday In The Park With George

Sunday In The Park With George
a kate west review
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine
directed by Oanh Nguyen
musical director Bill Strongin
at the Chance Theater
5552 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim 92807
contact (714) 777-3033 or
August 3 - September 16, 2007
(Bob Simpson as George; photo courtesy Doug Catiller)

Fed up with recent unusually unfavorable reviews, famed musical composer Stephen Sondheim declared a break from theatre in order to write mystery novels. He quickly changed his mind however, after being newly inspired by an intense discussion on a particular work of art and an artist he could readily identify with. He soon opened "Sunday in the Park with George" on Broadway in 1984, in collaboration with James Lapine. It garnered a slew of Tony nominations, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and most impressively, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it remains one of Sondheim's most brilliant and lyrically beautiful musicals to date.

The George in the title refers to the neo-impressionist French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891), whose new "Pointillism” technique* was initially ill received and created much critical controversy. He approached his art scientifically, carefully studying all different classes of people to put into his paintings, using color to balance emotional harmony, much the way a composer might create musical harmony. Small wonder that Sondheim was so drawn to his story; art is harmony, after all, and Sondheim is expert at blending seeming discordance into surprising harmony.

Seurat's most famous oil painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” (an agonizing two-year project), is literally the set piece for the musical. The show takes place in two eras, that of the 1800's when George first creates his masterpiece and that of the 1980's, which involves speculations on possible Seurat descendants and the timeless effect of the painting's legacy.

In the Chance Theater's production, Bob Simpson is the definite highlight of the show. He is a sincere and contemplative George Seurat, obsessively focused on minute details like "Finishing the Hat" in his grand work of art, to the exclusion of all else around him, including the woman he claims to love, Dot (warmly portrayed by Lowe Taylor). The show is completely about George, from his unique perspective, which explains why only those closest to him have any real character resonance, rather than just one-dimensional characters in a painting.

Dot (yes, like a dot of paint) represents the mysterious woman appearing so prominently in many of Seurat's pieces, a possible mistress he tried to keep secret until after his death (apparently Madeleine Knobloch, mother to his child). She starts out a spunky illiterate woman of feeling, fancying simple pleasures like going to the Follies, who, under George's manic and worldly influence, transforms into a quieter, more mature woman in charge of her own life. Inevitably, she finally leaves George ("We Do Not Belong Together"/"Move On") in the end, child and all. Taylor has a real immediacy and accessible stage presence.

Simpson and Taylor have many lovely strongly emotional scenes together, and while Taylor is the stronger singer, Simpson absolutely holds his own. He has a fun turn imitating two different types of dogs happily yipping and yapping at one point, as well as maintaining a quiet tortured intensity when attempting normal social interaction, so alien and uncomfortable for such an internal artist. And both of them transition well into the second act, when Simpson plays the frazzled modern artist supposedly descended from Seurat, who presents his laser marvel Chromolume #7 (taken from Seurat's language of using lines and color intensity called Chromoluminarism.) Taylor is his endearing grandmother Marie, who cautions us that life is about more than connecting dots of paint, that we must connect with people too ("Children and Art").

But for the most part, the rest of the ensemble is a bit weaker, unfortunately, and some of them are not quite up to the demands of the complicated musical score (Jonathon Lamer was fine as Jules, George's rival and friend). Also, with such a stylized script, the actors might want to clarify emotion in the simplest ways and not indicate as much (granted, presentational style is always tricky). The production itself appears a little over-ambitious for the small space and might suffer from the producers need to be original. For instance, Set Designer John Robinson inexplicably uses spackled paint, which jars with the projected beauty of the Seurat paintings. And while it may be a more convenient and clever device to use reverse cutouts sliding from the wings, the actual colorful cutouts used so sparingly go better with the back projection, artistically speaking. The general projected effects are O.K. in general, although they might work better viewed from afar. Cassandra L. Stone's costuming was nice, and in keeping with both periods and Musical Director Bill Strongin and his musicians did a fine job as well.

Director Oanh Nguyen might have given the audience a longer time at the end of the first act to drink in the effect of the actors sliding into position and creating an actual living painting ("Sunday"). Again, in such a small space the effect would be much more enhanced had the audience been seated further back, in order to appreciate the overall stage composition. The lights did come down a tad early. The crowd's cacophony leading up to George's frustrated shout of "Order!" works up to a point. Nguyen stages everything fine, balancing movement with stillness, but his company is just not up to the demands of the production. Since his actors comprise manifestations of characters from the painting, except for Seurat himself, the quintessential and imaginative observer, the whole cumulative effect works visually, more or less, just not theatrically. Ensemble pieces such as "The Day Off" and "It's Hot Up Here" are general crowd pleasers though.

The modern second act is a good follow-up, delving into financing art, a necessary skill of which Sondheim is probably all too painfully aware ("Putting It Together"). Seurat never learns to deal with real people's emotions, yet profoundly moves everyone around him and gives us insight into a brand new perspective. The classic misunderstood artist, dead by age 32, never having sold a single painting. In the show, he comes to understand his surroundings only through the next generation. Nguyen tries to be sensitive to this conflict in the artist in his staging which is really the key to mounting this show. It is most important to be true to the integrity of the story, that of balancing color, light and harmony with the struggle of humanity within the artist. And of course the musical score is sublime, and Sondheim's best.

*Refers to breaking up the surface of the painting, by painting pure dots of color on the canvas to create pure color. Viewed at a distance, the dots appear to fuse together, creating brilliant color. The human eye blends the colors instinctively. The "Sunday in the Park" painting is currently in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Get the original Broadway score:
Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Original Broadway Cast)

Read more about it:
The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat