Sunday in the Park with George | 01.07.11

george smMaking connections among ideas, people, work, and play is the single most important ordering principle of existence.

george lg

The Repertory Theatre, St. Louis

I’ve long remembered the epigraph chosen by E.M. Forster for his novel Howard’s End: “Only connect.” Noting the emphasis on “connection” in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, I can’t help wondering whether Sondheim was influenced by that nugget of wisdom which can serve as a design for living: Making connections among ideas, people, work, and play—everything we do, really—is the single most important ordering principle of existence. Connection, then, should create “harmony,” a consonance Seurat sought in his own work but could not find in his life because of his total immersion in his art.

George Seurat (Ron Bohmer) is a 25-year-old painter when we meet him in 1884 whose first major piece, Une Baignade, Asnières (Bathers at Asnières) has puzzled art critics. Like the painting this play addresses, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the earlier work, also oversized, invoked scientific principles to create an arresting visual effect based on the way the eye receives the impression of color. Seeking connection and harmony, Seurat painted his figures using a series of dots so that the combined perception would result in the aforesaid connection and harmony, not unlike point/counterpoint in music. On stage, both these paintings are rendered in tableaux vivants (“Bathers” only briefly) as the work is assembled before us.

Visually, Sunday in the Park with George, is a masterpiece in its own right. The overall composition under the aegis of director Rob Ruggiero by choreographer Ralph Perkins, scenic designer Adrian W. Jones, costume designer Alejo Vietti, and lighting designer Jon Lasiter is almost breathtaking. The subjects of the painting are brought to vibrant life, have back stories of their own, intermingle and create, yes, connections, all the while providing models for George who we see frantically working in his studio. George is obsessive about his work to the extent that his relationships suffer, especially that with “Dot” (his cleverly renamed girlfriend Madeleine in real life) who is also his chief model and later muse. He even tells her that “I am not hiding behind my canvas; I am in it.” Erin Davie is beautiful and vocally up to the demanding role, as is most of the rest of the large cast who Lapine and Sondheim have imagined as Seurat’s subjects. The simple and appropriate orchestral accompaniment is directed by F. Wade Russo.

All the wordplay we expect from Sondheim is present in the lyrics of the mostly masterful score, especially in Act I. From the first song, “Sunday in the Park with George,” wherein Dot is complaining about the discomfort of posing outdoors for long stretches in the heat, through to the Act closer “Sunday” by the entire company, we are impressed, entertained and amused. Standouts include “Color and Light” in which George tries to explain himself to Dot, and “the Day Off,” in which the cast explains Parisian Sundays to the audience. “Finishing the Hat,” refers to Seurat’s need to get a color just right (and must have been one of which Sondheim himself was proud, considering both volumes of his recent lyrical autobiography come from this tune) is fun. My favorite, “The One on the Left,” is sung by two soldiers (Sean Montgomery) to “Celeste #1 (Meggie Cansler) and Celeste #2 (Audrey Ray McHale). And I didn’t leave out an actor: One soldier is a life-size cutout who is carried around by the other. They even argue with each other, but those “altercations” are, obviously, one-sided.

Zoe Vonder Haar and Kari Ely are delightful (and in Vonder Haar’s case, poignant) as Seurat’s mother and her nurse. Other characters include Jules, another artist whose opinion George seeks, and his wife, Yvonne (Chris Hietikko, Deanne Lorette). Their young daughter Louise (Abbey Friedmann) is a brat with a tendency to go off on her own, and she provides humor. She also raises hackles when she finds Jules in a compromising position with the female half of their servant couple, Frieda (Rebecca Watson). Neither Yvonne nor Frieda’s husband, the volatile Franz (Jamie LaVerdiere) is happy about this turn of events. One of the painting’s subjects, the boatman found in the left foreground (Steve French) makes his disdain for the upper classes (and compared with him, everyone is upper class) humorously palpable. He is accompanied by his dog, another cut-out model, whose personality is provided by George imitating the dog as part of the group number, “The Day Off.”

So, the painting does get finished in 1886 (though the artist tinkers with it for the rest of his short life), and again, Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist technique is widely misunderstood. George himself continues his work, but not for long because he dies at the age of 31. Dot has married Louis (Mark Emerson) a popular baker who will be the father of her child, Marie, actually conceived with George who has no time for such emotional matters. She leaves for America.

Act II takes place 100 years later in 1984 where an artist named George is making a presentation of his “Chromolume #7.” It is a color machine, one he keeps perfecting (hence the number) but does not move beyond. It creates fascinating patterns, but upon first demonstration, it breaks down as mechanical objects are wont to do. Bohmer is George, and all the other actors from the first act are playing museum-goers and other interested parties in the second. Most interesting is a 98-year-old woman who is Marie played by Davie, the daughter of Dot and George, and the contemporary George’s grandmother. She tells her grandson the story her mother told her, the truth about her parentage, but he doesn’t really believe it. However, this later George is also obsessed in his own way with color and light, likely at the expense of a personal life. He is divorced, though his ex-wife has remained close to his grandmother, and most troublesome to Marie, he has no children to carry on the family bloodline.

This is the weaker of the two acts, although I wouldn’t go so far as some who have said it doesn’t belong in the show. In fact, I heard a man talking about how they should have left at intermission as we walked out of the theater. Certainly, 1984 ties up loose ends from the century earlier. The act opens with a clever number in which the characters in the painting complain about the exigencies of permanent stasis (“It’s Hot Up Here”) and a (truly) grand finale. But it drags a bit. “Children and Art,” a profound statement about the only creations of lasting value in the world seems to go on past the point where we can appreciate the message. But George Seurat’s life was unfinished, so it’s up to his great grandson to connect the dots, to see both the light and the life, and “Move On,” the advice given him in a blast from the past and the title of the second to last song in the show.

If for no other reason than the visuals, I’d recommend Sunday in the Park with George, but it also has a lot of great material and many fine performances. Overall, the Rep has brought us another winner. The show runs through January 29. You may contact www.repstl.org for information. | Andrea Braun

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