This is one of those musicals that was on my wife’s bucket list. I guess it is in a way the forgotten Sondheim. It won some critical acclaim, although the reviews were mixed, and it never really caught on with audiences when it first came out in the 1980s. It has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the last decade or so, perhaps driven by the loss of Mr. Sondheim himself.
In any case, it seems to me to be a compelling, if unusual, musical, with particularly fascinating music and staging. The version we saw in the small theater that is Ovation Theatre here in town was excellent.
The story is inspired by the painter, Georges Seurat, who pioneered the painting techniques of pointillism and chromoluminarism, and is considered one of the great post-impressionist painters.
He died all too young, of some common infectious disease that also killed his young son. Those were the days - the late 1800s - when such deaths were so common as to be unremarkable.
I used the word “inspired” rather than “based,” because the story has very little to do with the real life of Seurat. I mean, he did paint A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, his best-known work. And that painting forms the core of the musical. But the biographical details of Seurat’s life are completely fictional, and the second act is also pure fiction. That isn’t a bad thing, but it helps to know going in that this is not a biography.
The play is divided into two acts, the first of which is about Seurat himself, set in his time. The second act is about another George, the great-grandson of the artist, who is now an artist himself, navigating the politics of fundraising and patronage in the late 20th Century. The painting ties both acts together.
In that first act, Georges is working on his soon-to-be-famous painting, doing sketches on location. His mistress, Dot (nice pun there…) is one of the figures in the foreground - the one with the bustle. She wants him to take an interest in her personally, and take care of her needs, but he has become obsessed with the painting, and cannot tear himself away. Several of the other figures in the painting are given back stories. The mother and daughter, the blue-collar man with the pipe, the couple with the man in the top hat, and a handful of others.
By the end of the first act, Dot has decided to cut bait with Georges, who can’t even be bothered to acknowledge his own child, and married a baker who is immigrating to America. The characters all converge on stage, in the poses they are found in the painting, with the rest of the painting projected on the background.
In the second act, we get the young George - played by the same actor - at an event in which his projector-technology art exhibit interacts with Seurat’s painting. His aged grandmother, Marie, claims that she is Seurat’s daughter with Dot, although there isn’t conclusive proof. There is a good bit of satire of the art world, and the frustration of the politics and ass-kissing necessary to obtain commissions. (The song, “Putting it Together” with its freeze frame technique, is amazing, and superbly done in this production.) Eventually, after Marie’s death, George is able to go to Paris and see the site of the painting, and make a cosmic connection with Dot, who encourages him to follow his heart and his vision for art, rather than focus on making money.
Ovation’s production was truly excellent. As usual, they had live music rather than a recorded track. (Always something I appreciate.) Sondheim’s score is musical pointillism - the equivalent of Seurat’s technique - with running notes creating chords that are heard at a distance for what they are, while individually they seem unrelated. The lyrics are classic Sondheim, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness poetry that isn’t like anything else in music theater. I for one enjoy Sondheim, although I know he has his haters.
Lately, Ovation has been bringing a really high level of acting, singing, and dancing to their productions. Sunday in the Park with George continued this, with some impressive interpretive dance scenes that straddled the line between ballet and modern dance, as well as polished vocals, and solid acting.
I also want to note that the technical side of this show was on game. The set was very minimalist, but creative and fully integrated with the overall aesthetic of the show. The costumes were fascinating in their own right - duplications of the painting, of course, in the first act. But also the very 1980s artsy crowd stuff in the second act.
The lighting crew deserves some praise as well. That song, mentioned above, with the freeze frame, required instantaneous lighting changes on cue with George’s finger snaps. Or at least some of the finger snaps - it had to be the right ones and not the wrong ones later in the song. If this had been poorly done, it would have easily spiraled into a disaster. Instead, it was spot on the whole time, and it was magic. The program lists Trenton Benet as light designer, and Eva Lopez and Lee Gholz as light operators - you three deserve a pat on the back.
The actors were well cast. Many names were familiar regulars on the local stage, and all of them had to play multiple characters due to the time separation of the two acts. Each character, even the minor ones, were memorable. The cast took the time to create individual personalities for each, and I cannot think of a weak role.
The two leads were perfect for their parts. I have mentioned Tessa Ogles in so many of my posts, because she has ended up in seemingly every other show. As Dot and Marie, she brought her usual lovely singing to the role, and played off of the other characters quite well.
Shawn Rader, on the other hand, is one of those guys that hasn’t played that many lead characters (at least in the shows I have been to.) He was most recently in Cabaret, as a Nazi, but the only other main character I am sure I have seen him as was in Big Fish at The Empty Space a few years ago. As in that production, he was excellent in this one. He has a great voice, and an understated acting style that worked well for the eccentric Seurat and the neurotic George.
Across the board, this was a fine production. Good for Ovation for bringing a less popular (and thus more risky) musical to their stage.
Unfortunately, I saw one of the last performances, and the run is done. However, Ovation has a whole slate of shows planned for next season, starting on May 19. The pandemic was hard on artists of all kinds, but I am thrilled to say that local theater here in Bakersfield not only made it through, but has come back better than ever.