BWW Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at American Theatre Company
"Art isn't easy." So sings the great-grandson of Georges Seurat in the second act of Sunday in the Park with George. This Pulitzer prize-winning musical, by Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim, is based on a painting: certainly no easy feat to create, even for Sondheim. The production of Sunday in the Park with George that closed last weekend at the American Theatre Company depicted a profound meditation on art-making, building a legacy, and how to relate to others through, and not in spite of, these processes. Sondheim is correct: art isn't easy. But the talented individuals behind the ATC production could have you fooled.
Sunday in the Park is eager to be blunt about the challenges of the artistic process, but the musical masterpiece is also packed with more subtle insights about the process of turning life into art. The show spans two not entirely different worlds and actors are double-cast in each: the first act takes place in 1880s in Paris on the Island of La Grande Jatte, where Georges Seurat is agonizing over painting his famous masterpiece. The second act skips ahead a full century to an art gallery where Georges' great-grandson (played by the same performer) unveils his latest artwork while growing increasingly ambivalent about his future as an artist.
The show begins with Georges Seurat - the real painter, not his imagined great-grandson - conjuring elements of design and drawing to the stage. The audience does not have to crane their necks to see his work on a small drawing pad or canvas: his work is projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage (designed beautifully by Aaron Kennedy), which shifts and grows as Georges meditates and paints. Besides being aesthetically breathtaking, this screen is also a useful storytelling tool because it serves as a window into Georges' artistic imagination. It allows the audience to see the world as he does: changeable, ambiguous, but also meticulously detailed and harmonious.
While this sophisticated scenic device is mesmerizing, the show provides so much more than a solipsistic look inside the artistic process for one individual. Sunday in the Park also tells the story of Georges' relationship with the world, and his ability to connect with those around him. His most profound relationship is with his model and lover, Dot, who struggles to reach him in the face of his singular dedication to his craft. Karlena Riggs, who played Dot in the ATC production, captures her character's frustration with a beautiful blend of authenticity and pitch-perfect humor, while never obscuring the deep love and admiration that she feels for Georges. Even from up close in the second row, her performance never felt exaggerated or farcical: she shifted from exasperation to aching tenderness with ease. Her vocal performance was also spot-on, and despite Sondheim's characteristically challenging score, she once again made the vocals look easy. Some highlights included "Everybody Loves Louis" and her song as George's grandmother in the second act, "Children and Art".
Samuel Briggs was a fitting counterpart in the role of George(s) because he effectively captured the maniacal energy and relentless struggle of an artist at work. While Ms. Riggs was the pillar of the performance, Mr. Briggs was the wild spark, lighting up the stage in search of perfection. He presented a formidable interpretation of the classic "Finishing the Hat" as well as a powerful "Lesson #8" in the second act. His duet with Ms. Riggs, when she returns to the 20th century Georges as the memory of Dot, was the highlight of the show. This song, entitled "Move On", demonstrates so much of what is great about Sunday in the Park: the characters and longings that transcend time and place, the intertwined melodies, and the ways in which the form and content mirror one another. While the songs in the first act are punctuated with staccato moments, like the dots of Georges' pointillism, "Move On" is pondering and broad, like 20th century George's glowing "chromolume" art piece. Riggs and Briggs performed it with skill and passion.
The other characters in the play are characters in the painting in the first act and members of the art world in the second. In both cases, they were costumed just perfectly (by Michelle Wamego) and they operated effectively as a unit, managing to conjure up real people while also functioning somewhat as representations of Georges' imagination and anxieties. Standouts included Timothy Hunter as the Boatman/Charles and Austin Reid as Soldier/Billy, along with his absurd cutout of a companion. The ensemble sang beautifully throughout, rendering Sondheim's tricky harmonies faithfully, but they came together most strongly in the second act for an energized and impeccably staged rendition of "Putting it Together". In this song, 20th century George has to network at a gallery event and is confronted with the pressures of commoditizing his art, all while being overwhelmed by critical and inquisitive members of the art world. The ensemble's precise tone and timing here helped bring this song out of the insular museum art sphere and into the theatrical space - like much of Sunday in the Park, "Putting it Together" is a self-aware commentary on the show itself and the challenge of making something true really come to life.
Sunday in the Park with George is quintessential Sondheim, both musically and in general: complicated, dissonant, definitely not easy. But it is also like the painting that inspired it: thoughtful, innovative, and elegantly designed. The fact that ATC put on a production that managed to touch on the qualities of great art that Georges venerates so much is a huge accomplishment. Between Meghan Hurley's direction, stunning costumes and projections, powerful leads, and a robust ensemble, ATC created something precise, balanced, and harmonious. Georges would certainly be proud.