Sunday in the Park with George premiered on Broadway in 1984 and was a turning point for Stephen Sondheim, winning a Pulitzer for the composer and lyricist and perpetuating his name as musical theater’s greatest artist. Village Players’ current production of the musical does great justice both to Sondheim and to the show’s subject: 19th century painter Georges Seurat, the father of neo-Impressionism.
Inspiration for the musical, which was a collaboration between Sondheim and librettist James Lapine based on Lapine’s book of the same name, is the Seurat masterpiece well-appreciated by many Chicagoans: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a gem in the Art Institute’s collection and a signature work for the artist who revolutionized painting with a technique called pointillism. Instead of brushstrokes, Seurat’s compositions comprised thousands of tiny dots of differing colors. From a distance, the dots connect into a play of color for the eye. Little appreciated in his day, Seurat’s innovation hugely influenced subsequent generations of visual artists.
Reproducing references to such art makes Sunday in the Park with George, revived last year on Broadway, an immensely difficult production that tests the mettle of any small theater company. Village Players director Kevin Long and design consultant Rebecca Hamlin cracked technical difficulties with huge success, setting the action in front of a massive pointillist backdrop of La Grande Jatte, an island park on the River Seine in Paris.
In the first act, Jeremy Cohn labors monomaniacally as Seurat, who took two years to complete the painting. He neglects his lover, his mother and every other human being he encounters. He studies people as arrangements of light, colors and shadows. He doesn’t engage with them in any other way. His work is then subjected to the criticism of less talented artists who don’t understand the ingenuity of his innovation.
It’s no small feat to compellingly portray a character whose principal internal problem is his lack of connection. Cohn brings a furrowed intensity to Georges Seurat, and his singing is well up to the challenge of Sondheim’s difficult score.
Stephanie Herman plays Dot, Seurat’s lover and model. Dot has many struggles – her need for attention from her lover, her desire to improve herself intellectually, her attempts to give her life stability and respectability. Her struggles come to a head when she becomes pregnant. Seurat’s neglect, even when he learns the child is his, drives her into a marriage with the stable, but far less interesting, baker Louis (Derek Marcussen). They move to America. She never sees Seurat again.
Georges is the brains of the show, but Dot is its heart. Herman winningly engages the audience emotionally, both as the long-suffering Dot in Act I and her daughter, Marie, who in the second act is 98 and a simple Southern woman thrust into the attention of the art world.
The balance of the cast plays specific people in the painting. Rather than the line of nameless dancers and singers in traditional musicals, each character here has his or her own distinct personality and objective. Little wonder that Act I clocks in at a hefty hour and 45 minutes, time that might have been a bit compressed with elimination of some Pinteresque pacing of dialogue.
Jules, a more successful and less talented artist (Jameson Wentworth App), damns Seurat in the first act with faint praise and ominous warnings of the tenuousness of his support. He and his wife, Yvonne (Katharine Cikanek), are viscerally disliked by Dot.
The other characters are engaged in various trysts and small intrigues. Jules has an affair with his servant Frieda (Andriana Pachella), while her husband, Franz (Patrick Byrnes) has his own affair with a nurse (Christine Ronna). Two young ladies, both named Celeste (Brittany Townsley and Lara Mainier) vie for and exchange the attention of two soldiers, one played by Scott Edwards Mills and the other by a painted flat. A flustered American couple (Kevin Wood and Christine Ronna in double duty) search vainly for a way off the island and back into the city. And a coarse boatman (Fiore Barbini) inveighs against the stodgy formality and hypocrisy of all these people, while being taunted by a high-spirited little girl (Livvie Goble).
Special note should be given to Betty Scott Smith, who recently played Miss Daisy in the Village Players’ production of Driving Miss Daisy. Smith plays Seurat’s mother with wonderfully comic irascibility at one moment, and in a calmer mood, sitting as a model for her son, she skillfully plays the solemn appreciation of what is beautiful in nature, wistfully pining for the view of the trees that were cleared for the construction of the metal monstrosity known as The Eiffel Tower.
Act II is set in the contemporary art world 100 years after the painting’s debut, in the times of the play’s premiere, in fact. Leading the second act is George (an American, no ‘s’ in this name), the fictional great-grandson of Seurat. With Marie’s help, George is mounting an experimental multimedia exhibition of laser art for a centennial celebration of the masterpiece. Cohn has the formidable task of playing George, too.
Struggles in this world of 1980s art are different for George than they were in the 1880s for his ancestor. Far from the starving-artist stereotype of previous generations, George sweats funding, collaboration, sponsorship and gladly suffering critics and pretentious would-be aesthetes.
In 1984, the world of modern art was an explosion of well-funded, corporate- and foundation-sponsored avant-garde theater and performance art, what Spy magazine sardonically named the BAM-a-rama (after the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then home of the most ambitious avant-garde and performance art in the world). Such theater artists as Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, Lee Breuer and Laurie Anderson became world-famous. And in that explosion, Sondheim was out of vogue for the first time in his career. He hadn’t opened a hit show on Broadway since 1979 and Sweeney Todd.
At their core, Georges and George struggle with the same problem: connection – connection with their work and with people. This struggle at the heart of the play can be viewed, for Sondheim at the time of its premiere, as an attempt to reconnect himself to the continuum of the cutting edge, as an artistic peer of the Robert Wilsons and Philip Glasses of the world.
Director Kevin Long and his able cast and crew have succeeded heroically in bringing three-dimensional life to Sondheim’s score and Lapine’s story. Setting the bar high with such a difficult show, Village Players returns the challenge to other theater companies to take on similarly ambitious projects.
Chris D’Amico is a freelance writer, actor and director who lives in Oak Park.