Stephen Sondheim is not only one of the great musical theater composers to ever live, he is also my absolute favorite. So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to review Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie Theater. As much of a super fan of Sondheim as I am, I must admit this was my first time ever seeing or hearing a production of Sunday in the Park with George and (SPOILER ALERT) I loved it. It was beautiful, moving and included wonderfully done direction by director Joseph Haj.
Sunday in the Park with George is a musical inspired by George Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George originally opened on Broadway in 1984 and starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. The musical won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for a total of 10 Tony Awards (winning Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design).
The musical takes a deep look into what it is like to be an artist. The word artist is a very subjective term as both acts of the show take different approaches to the definition. The first act revolves around George Seurat (played by Randy Harrison) who is a dedicated and serious painter. His latest masterpiece engulfs his entire being and even risks his relationship with his lover, Dot (played by Erin Mackey). The second act takes place a century later, where George's great-grandson is working as a more contemporary artist.
I fell almost immediately in love with the set upon walking into the Wurtele Thrust, designed by Jan Chambers. It had the perfect amount of simplicity and sophistication for this Sondheim production. A large white outline frames part of the plain blank stage. Behind that a large white cloth hangs from on the stage left side and behind that a black scrim, hiding the orchestra. It's an obvious yet brilliant metaphor for a design. As the actors moved around on stage, they themselves were painting scenes across the white canvas of the stage and it quite honestly was one of my favorite parts of the entire production. As the first act ended, George began moving different actors around the stage, in the outline of the canvas, in a frantic way that left some audience members confused. It wasn't until they were all set that a larger version of the famous painting flew in behind the actors that the audience understood and cheered.
The performances by all the actors were remarkable. It is the famous Guthrie Theater after all, did I expect anything less than superb? As someone who has performed in two Sondheim shows myself (Rapunzel's Prince in Into the Woods and Charles Guiteau in Assassins), I know how difficult his music is. His harmonies and master of the English language is difficult and rewarding. The entire ensemble of actors had their work cut out for them with this musical and they were fantastic. Everything from Dot's mouthful of words and clear control of breath support in the opening title song to the staccato ensemble verses in "It's Hot Up Here." Harrison's singing is not to go unnoticed as well. It was soft and tender at times while his belts filled the performance space beautifully.
The overall tone and mood of this production is really something special. As I mentioned before, I had never seen Sunday in the Park with George and I was quite surprised as to how many times I found myself laughing out loud. Mackey had the audience in the palm of her hand the entire time, as we laughed with her comedic timing but also felt for her during her times of sorrow. While Harrison's character often was not trying to be funny, it was his blunt honesty that made me laugh.
Sometimes theater is not for everyone, and I believe this show might be one of those...or at least those who are not willing to try. I heard a few audience members say they did not enjoy the time skip along with the fact that they didn't understand how George could see his ancestors and the people who originally posed for the A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte painting. At times like this audience members really should follow, what I believe to be a common practice for theater goers, suspension of disbelief. Now there is a difference between suspending disbelief and just lack of a plot that makes sense however this is the exception that if you're going to see this production, you need to be willing to just go with it.
Sunday in the Park with George is a beautifully painted production of Sondheim's beloved masterpiece. The music is stunning and the actors bring so much a production that many would die to be apart of. It is the production to see this summer. Sunday in the Park with George plays June 17 through August 20. More information can be found here.
*Photos by T Charles Erickson