“White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George”, a meditation on the artist’s struggle to stay true to himself while creating something new, gets a startlingly emotional and dazzling production at Pasadena Playhouse.
The story centers around a fictionalized version of the artist George Seurat and the creation of his famous work, “a Sunday on La Grande Jatte” in late 1890’s Paris. The play opens with Seurat sketching his model girlfriend, Dot, along with all walks of Parisians as they stroll through a “small suburban park, on an island in the river, on an ordinary Sunday.” It becomes painfully clear that Seurat is unable to balance life with his girlfriend and his all-consuming passion of breaking through to something new with his painting. At the time, Seurat was relatively unknown and ridiculed for his new scientific approach of pointillism, where he used closely positioned points of pure color which he explained would mix together in the viewer’s eye.
It is technically pared down from the original Broadway production and I think the show benefits emotionally and the beauty of the score absolutely shimmers. It is delivered by an outstanding orchestra live on stage, behind a scrim, under the exquisite direction of Andy Einhorn. The Tal Yarden projections illuminate the scrim with Seurat’s on-going sketches and painting. These, along with Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design and Ken Billington’s lighting, bring what Seurat the artist is seeing to the audience in a visually stunning and visceral way.
The direction by Sarna Lapine is masterful. She knows this show probably better than anyone, given her personal (as writer James Lapine’s niece) and professional (she directed the recent Broadway revival) connections to the piece, and it shows. She deftly navigates all the emotional moments, moving the actors in and out of focus, all interwoven in perfect synchronicity – every move an expression of the artist’s vision. There are bursts of tenderness and raw intimacy that are staggering. I don’t know if I can quite explain just why I was so moved by this production other than the thought that this kind of artistry and beauty feels so needed in this moment. Every aspect of this magnificent piece feels just right.
Graham Phillips takes on the daunting role of tortured artist, George, and does so with searing, operatic vocals that pierce through the heart. He has terrific chemistry with his lover/model, Dot, a luminous Krystina Alabado, who brings out both the comedy and pain while delivering the strong vocals the role calls for. She’s charming and touching in the second act, playing Dot’s 20th century elderly daughter, Marie.
The entire cast is stellar, each playing dual roles with each character engaging us with their story. Michael Manuel is perfectly snobbish and uptight as the more established artist, Jules, and his wife Yvonne is played with flair and poignancy by Emily Tyra. Liz Larson is fantastic as George’s mother in Act I and art critic, Blair, in Act II. With time, I’ve come to truly appreciate the depth and meaning of the song “Beautiful” that George sings with his mother. Her memory is fading and as she longs for the old view, George tries to get her to see the beauty of change and comforts her with the idea that he will paint it all. This beautifully sets up Marie’s song in the second act when she sings about the only lasting things in life being “Children and Art”. In both acts we are swept up into the artist’s vision of color and light as he creates.
The first act culminates with a chaotic scene of all levels of Parisian society out for a stroll and recreation on a hot, summer day on the island of La Grande Jatte. There are dogs yapping, children running away from their nannies, workers relaxing on their day off, people fishing, people-watching, gossiping, eating. It all builds to a cacophony of activity until the artist, Seurat, who has been quietly sketching it all, commands them to begin forming the vision in his mind. Suddenly, there is a quiet calm of the opening strains of “Sunday”. It is simply stunning as the painting comes into focus, bringing together all the disparate characters into one, dazzling work of art.
At a time when so many are struggling in so many ways, when what divides us seems to be the dominating narrative – it felt urgent – this passionate plea for the transformative nature of art, our need for it as a society, as individuals. We need this color, this light – this harmony.
“Sunday in the Park with George” is now playing at Pasadena Playhouse through March 19, 2023. Tickets start at $39 and are available at pasadenaplayhouse.org, by phone at 626-356-7529, and at the box office at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.