Huntington's "Sunday in the Park": Harmony, by George

The Cast of "Sunday in the Park with George"
(photo: Paul Moratta)

For this critic, it all began in 1984, as the first act of a preview of a then-new Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George , thundered to the climax of its final scene, with its exquisite visual, lyrical drive. It was love at first sight, and hearing, with its affirmation, in spite of all that is dark, desperate and demonic in our world, that there still can be art, inexplicably beautiful, brilliant, moving and enthralling. Though it earned two Tony Awards for technical achievements, the show was met with a decidedly mixed reception, until it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In subsequent productions, virtually all true to the original conceptualists and their visionary brilliance, it grew in acceptance and stature, despite the fact that its subject matter, the creation of the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), is an unusual one. Sondheim in his book Look, I Made a Hat speaks of the painting's “varying perspectives and proportions...(with) hundreds of thousands of daubs of color”, and the “curious fact that not one of them is looking at another”. It was Librettist James Lapine who first noticed what was missing: the painter. With that realization, they were able to proceed with what has come to be regarded as perhaps the finest work by Composer/Lyricist Sondheim and Lapine. Thus it was that the announcement that this work had been chosen as the initial production of Huntington Theatre Company's current season elicited excitement among local theatergoers as they wondered: will this possibly equal the company's magnificent track record with such works as She Loves Me, Candide and Jungle Book? It's a joy to reveal that Huntington has created another transcendent and
transporting miracle.
The story begins with the words of Georges Seurat (the passionate Adam Chanler-Berat): White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, balance, light, and harmony. He is at work on a huge painting of some fifty characters, one of whom is his model and Mistress “Dot” (the lustrous Jenni Barber), a sly allusion to his pointillist style. Also in the painting are an Old Lady, George's mother (the wondrous Bobbie Steinbach) with her Nurse (Amy Barker). Eventually there will also be three bathers (echoed in Seurat's other work, Bathers at Asnieres) and a Boatman (Todd A. Horman), two shop girls both named Celeste (Morgan Kirner and Sarah Oakes Muirhead) who are flirting with a handsome soldier (Andrew O'Shanick), a middle-aged couple, Yvonne (Aimee Doherty) and her husband Jules (Josh Breckenridge) who stroll in to criticize his work, their two servants, Franz (Patrick Varner) and Frieda (Melody Butiu), and a dog. There will also be young Louise (Bailey MacNeal) and an American couple, Mr. & Mrs. (James Andrew Walsh and Barker again). The score includes the songs “The Day Off”, (a dog song, no less), and “Finishing the Hat” (about which Sondheim writes of “the treasured feeling of trancing out in a stream-of-consciousness lyric"). Then there is Dot's resigned lament “We Do Not Belong Together” as she leaves, pregnant with George's child, for America with her new beau Louis the baker (Nick Sulfaro), and Georges' mother's comments on the passage of time in “Beautiful” (and quite beautifully sung by Steinbach). As the painting progresses, it becomes clear why Seurat was consumed with satire, considered by some as a cartoonist as much as a painter. The first act ends with his commentary: “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony”, and the song “Sunday” with its stunning use of the word “Forever”. It remains one of the most brilliant moments in musical theater history.

Adam Chanler-Berat as George in "Sunday in the Park with George"
(photo: Paul Moratta) 

Act Two begins a century later with the characters in the painting expressing what they would have thought if they'd understood the reality that they would be immortalized, in “It's Hot Up Here” (with what Sondheim describes as a “tone of enervation”). The site is the museum in which the painting hangs (in a sort of meta moment, the Art Institute of Chicago, home of the painting in real life). The museum is the venue for a cocktail party for Seurat's great grandson George, (Chanler-Berat again) a self-described sculptor and inventor. He enters with his grandmother Marie (whom Dot was pregnant with in Act I, portrayed by Barber) for his latest multimedia installation, another in a series of “chromolumes” (referencing Seurat's theory of his “chromoluminarism”or “color-light-ism”). There is a generous amount of discussion about today's art scene, in the fabulously staged “Putting It Together” about the art of making (and promoting) art. It remains the weaker of the two acts in plot, but the stronger for its masterful score, notably Barber's two stellar turns in “Children and Art” (“the only things we hand down") and “Move On”. Along the way there are numerous humorous bits, but also what Sondheim describes as its “current of vulnerability, of longing, of compassion, that inform the show”. Undeniably the star of the proceedings is Sondheim himself, for his lovely music and even moreso his tantalizing lyrics. There are so many excerpts one could note, but let the following arbitrary choice suffice:
And the girls are so rapturous
isn't it lovely that artists can capture us?...
It's not so much do what you like
as it is that you like what you do...
I chose and my world was shaken – so what?
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not...
Stop worrying if your vision is new
Let others make that decision
They usually do
You keep moving on...
Anything you do, let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see....

Though there are some (intentionally) cardboard characters on the stage, the live cast is anything but, starting with Chanler-Berat and Barber, and true of the entire ensemble, which sings just about perfectly as a chorus. And what of the design, composition, balance, light, and harmony of this production? It's actually not a miracle when a company's palette includes Direction by Peter DuBois, with Musical Direction by Eric Stern, Choreography by Daniel Pelzig, Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Robert Morgan, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Sound Design by Jon Weston and Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. DuBois really seems to have captured the creative intent of Sondheim and Lapine, as have the rest of the creative team. Special notice should be made about Morgan's array of colorful costumes, true to the original painting and period yet fresh and new in feeling.

Regarded as one of the world's half-dozen most beloved paintings, there is no substitute for seeing it with its transcendent size and in living color (though this production will do quite nicely in the meantime). It's ironic that it has become iconic, so much so that it now even exists as a life-size topiary park in Columbus, Ohio. And now, thanks to Huntington Theatre, it has been resplendently reaffirmed, for which we should all be exceedingly grateful. We should also be grateful that DuBois plans to mount the remaining Sondheim works over the next few decades. As the final line in the play puts it: So many possibilities.  Meanwhile, please, Mr. Sondheim, give us more to see.   And hear.
The "Sunday in the Park with George" Topiary
(Columbus, Ohio)

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