Staging Sunday in the Park with George is certainly a challenging and ambitious undertaking. The concept is brilliant, the piece of theatre masterly (it has a Pulitzer Prize and 10 Tony Awards to its credit), but without consummate performing talent, and the technical artistry to produce a simply awe-inspiring set of back-drops, it would be impossible to convey to the audience the depth of emotion of a story so imbued with passion. If anyone can deliver a stunning success despite rigorous demands such as these, though, it’s the San Francisco Playhouse.
It’s hardly surprising that Director Bill English felt “terrified” to bring to bring this production to the stage. His trepidation was based on the fact that it’s such a personal work, exposing “the vulnerability of art and how that deeply affects the artists who create it”.
The play picks up the story of post-impressionist artist, Georges Seurat, in 1884, as he’s engrossed in observing and creating sketches of local Parisians enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. From this scene he will create his masterpiece with pointillism, a technique which he’s developed, using minuscule points of color, too tiny to be discerned by the naked eye, but which give his works the overall sensation of shimmering light.
Transport this scene to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, a fictional interpretation of the story surrounding the creation of Seurat’s unusual painting – the title of which translates from the French as A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grand Jatte. Here the artist, George – in a tremendous performance by John Bambery – is working feverishly, totally absorbed in his sketches, and completely oblivious to the complaints – or needs – of his lover, Dot, who is posing for him – a plaintive and sympathetic portrayal by Nanci Zoppi.
Gradually, the subjects of the work which George is planning are brought to life – against the backdrop of a huge reproduction of the painting – each having his or her own story to tell, or problem to air. They interact with each other, they break into song to an unusual and almost brittle score, and as an onlooker, you are drawn into the lives of this disparate group of people – whose somewhat solemn demeanor is offset by the presence of a young girl and cardboard replicas of two obviously playful dogs – and who outwardly all appear to be ignoring each other. They turn out, however, to be a lot more colorful than you’d imagine. Interestingly, almost every one of them in Seurat’s painting is in profile, and even those who are front-facing have their faces smudged, so you really have little idea who and what they are until Sondheim and Lapine bring them to life.
There’s George’s rather crotchety mother, known as the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry) who is greatly disturbed by the tower being constructed for the forthcoming International Exposition, her nurse (Michelle Drexler) who is far more interested in Franz, the coachman of George’s friends – Jules (Ryan Drummond) and his wife Yvonne (Abby Haug). Jules, also a painter, is finding it very hard to appreciate George’s masterpiece – and Franz and his wife Frieda have a less than convivial relationship. There’s also the rough and ready – and rather ill-tempered – boatman (Xander Ritchey) who shouts at Jules and Yvonne’s daughter, Louise (Charlotte Ying Levy), when she tries to pet his dog. The shopgirls – Celeste 1 and Celeste 2 (Emily Radosevich and Corrie Farbstein) – vie for the attention of two soldiers (Elliott Hansen and William Giammona) – and American tourists (Zac Schumann and Michelle Drexler) are hating everything about Paris, apart from the pastries, so they plan to take the baker, Louis (Anthony Rollins-Mullens), back to the States with them, together with Dot, whom he’s prepared to marry, even though she’s carrying George’s child.
Fast forward 100 years to an American gallery, where the artist’s great-grandson, also named George, is opening his new exhibition of highly technical and whizzy artworks. He, like his great-grandfather, is enduring his own personal crisis in trying to bring to the world of art a concept which is new and somewhat revolutionary, but he, ultimately, discovers his own fulfillment through linking his present to his celebrated past.
Everything about this production of Sunday in the Park with George is deserving of a superlative – from the casting, to the sets, to the performance of the score. Visually sumptuous, it’s delightful, humorous, fascinating and also intensely moving – a particularly fine work of art.
Sunday in the Park with George runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until September 8th. For more information and tickets, visit sfplayhouse.org.
Photos by Ken Levin
Information sourced from:
San Francisco Playhouse program notes