Off the bat, the fact that I own the original Broadway cast DVD recording, have four of the original cast album songs on my iPod, and have had tickets to this show for almost a full year should be a fairly strong indication of my excitement and anticipation for the Guthrie’s latest production: “Sunday in the Park with George.”
The fact that I’ve seen it twice within a week should be an equally strong indication of how I feel about it.
My fascination with “Sunday…” comes from James Lapine’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (and score). Each time I watch or listen to this show, I walk away with a different experience and perspective. “Sunday…” is a smorgasbord of so many themes and ideas that it’s impossible to taste and comprehend everything in one, let alone ten, helpings. For instance, my latest encounters have left me contemplating how art captures a specific time and personal perspective differently than other forms of historical documentation. What does a painting, or play, for that matter, show and tell that no letter or photograph can?
“Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the late 19th century impressionist painter George Seurat and his work on his most notable painting: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
At the top of the show, George introduces us to scenic designer Jan Chambers’ setting, “white, a blank page or canvas.” A simple white proscenium frames the stage and the massive waterfall of canvas, waiting to be stretched, that hangs behind it. It is upon this elegant stage that “so many possibilities” come to life. Among them are Toni-Leslie James’ costumes which (apart from the soldiers’ uniforms which seem to be pulled from technicolor Nutcracker stock) are incredible interpretations of the clothing in Seurat’s work. Additionally, kudos to the properties and scenic artists whose work literally made my jaw drop. These elements all work largely in conjunction with Jane Cox’s lighting design and Caite Hevner’s projection design. There is a blur between lighting and projection design in this production and they interact and work together seamlessly to accentuate George’s impressionistic style and artistic view of his surroundings.
More an observer to his surroundings, rather than a participant in them, George sketches the “people out strolling on Sunday” from a distance. Amongst themselves, these people share their thoughts of George, his status in their society, and the validity and importance (or lack thereof) of his paintings. Central to George’s life is Dot, his muse and model, who longs for a deeper and stronger connection with him, which George is unable, or unwilling, to reciprocate. Although he sees that Dot desires something more, George is transfixed by his work and cannot tear himself away, even when he sees that his fixation on developing his impressionistic style is driving Dot away from him.
It is George’s pointillistic painting technique that determines the atmosphere of the entirety of act one. Although his technique makes his painting appear to shimmer with light, the composition of George Seurat’s painting is color blocked and stiff in nature, with each of the figures rigid and posed specifically. Director Joseph Haj seems to have taken inspiration from Seurat and similarly composed his actors on the stage. Even the movement is contained and concentrated. So much so, that there doesn’t seem room to breathe in the Wurtele Thrust Stage and I often caught myself sitting stiffly in my seat, holding my breath.
It is Erin Mackey’s Dot, however, that let’s me let my breath go and relax into my seat. She doesn’t demand the stage. But the stage seems to offer itself up to her. Ms. Mackey’s voice soars with Mark Hartman’s sumptuous thirteen piece orchestra and she plays a delightful balance between comedy and heartbreak.
Tripling up on roles, Emily Gunyou Halaas is highly entertaining to watch and adds a burst of energy each time she marches, saunters, or trips-about on stage. Christine Toy Johnson as the Old Lady was an unexpected heartbreaker and is the sole reason behind my contemplation into the relationship between art and historical representation. Her duet, “Beautiful,” with George gave me chills. (It’s also worth mentioning, at this point, that “Sunday” at the end of act one left me in tears.) Randy Harrison plays the titular character, and he attacks the daunting and intimidating role with intermittent success.
By this time I should probably mention that there are two George’s in this production, both performed by Mr. Harrison. George Seurat is the act one protagonist. In act two, we jump forward 100 years to the 1980s and meet George, the great grandson of Seurat.
I more-or-less enjoyed the performance by Mr. Harrison all through act one. His “Finishing the Hat” drew a well-deserved “wonderful” from the gentleman sitting behind me. In act two, a disconnect occurs between what the actor says and what the actor does. George proclaims that he has lost his sense of direction and doesn’t know how to continue making art, but he simultaneously doesn’t seem to care. At one point, he tells himself, “connect George!” The same could be said of Mr. Harrison.
Besides the dialogues that are spurred on by Sondheim’s lyric “the art of making art,” “Sunday…” is about the connection between people and the connection of a person to specific moments in time. In short, it is about being present. This not only applies to actors, but to an audience as well. And it is an incredible thing: to connect with hundreds of strangers in a dark room over the impressionistic moments on the Wurtele Thrust Stage.
And although a handful of these moments may be smudged with some misplaced acting choices, this does little to dampen the brilliance of the Guthrie’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” A romping, splashy musical with belty pop-ballads and leggy chorus girls, this is not. “Sunday…” is focused and posed and one should be prepared to pay attention and do some heavy thinking. And you should get your tickets now before I decide I need to go see it a third time, or else you may not be able to get in.