Archive for January, 2012

Sunday in the Park with George

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by James Lapine

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

January 11, 2012

Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered what the characters depicted were thinking?  Have you wondered how the artist was inspired to paint this particular image?  These questions, among others, are dealt with in Sondheim and Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George.  The current production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is marvelous, expertly crafted and at the same time entertaining and thought-provoking. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, as it explores the artistic process and an artist’s relationships to his art and the world around him, as well as the people in his life. It’s a wonderfully constructed show with a great book by Lapine and the brilliant music and lyrics of Sondheim, but a show so intricate and well-conceived needs a great director, cast and crew to succeed, and the Rep delivers magnificently.

The story is a complex one, and it would take more than one paragraph to fully describe its intricacies.  Basically, it’s two stories, both about an artist named George and the woman who both inspires and bewilders him in different ways.  In the first act, “George” is Georges Seurat, the 19th Century French painter most famous for Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (shown above). The first act is an imagination of Seurat’s life as he spends a series of Sundays sketching in the park and constructing his masterwork, as well as exploring his relationships with the subjects of the painting, most importantly his model and sometime lover, Dot (Erin Davie).  The second act takes place a century later in 1984, as another artist named George (also Bohmer) with a connection to Seurat explores his own issues with creating his own multimedia works.  Central to this George’s life is his grandmother Marie (also Davie), Dot’s daughter, who is constantly reminding her grandson of the importance of his family history.  While the first George fights to realize his artistic vision with intense focus while often neglecting his personal relationships, the second George, a multi-media artist, is caught up in the business and public relations side of art, while trying to rediscover meaning in his creations themselves.

The show starts out with a blank stage, framed in white, as an artist starts with a blank canvas, and then it gradually fills up with color—a carpet that slides on for grass, a cut-out tree that flies in from the wings—as Seurat’s setting emerges onstage.  The elements of the painting are introduced and revisited throughout the first act, finally coming together in a meticulous re-creation of Seurat’s masterpiece.  The outstanding scenic design by Adrian W. Jones, beautiful costumes by Alejo Vietti, and striking lighting designed by John Lasiter all work together with the strong ensemble cast to bring Seurat’s world to life. The moment at the end of the first act (during the song “Sunday”) in which the painting comes together is a real thrill.  The 1984 scenes also effectively set the tone for that period as well, re-creating a modern art gallery opening with clever use of light-up pillars to represent many faces of George as he works the room after the presentation of his latest work (“Putting It Together”), and then revisiting the island of the first act, which is both familiar and noticeably different.

As both Georges, Bohmer is a strong presence, full of single-minded determination as Seurat, and a mixture of charm and bewilderment as modern George.  His voice is strong and versatile.  He’s great in the dramatic moments and even the small bits of comedy, like the part in the first act when he is painting two dogs and imagining what they would be saying. He very convincingly portrays the nearly obsessive focus of a painter who is trying to capture the world on canvas, but sometimes has trouble relating to his subjects.  As 1984 George, he is able to portray a contrasting character with his own struggles.  He is well-matched by Davie, as both the youthful Dot and the elderly Marie, two distinctly different characters with profound effects on their respective Georges.  As Dot, she is youthful and determined and occasionally snarky.  Davie does a great job of portraying both her love for George and the confusion and hurt that comes from trying to get close to him.  She is equally effective in the second act as the feisty but fading Marie.  Davie has a strong voice that at times reminded me of Bernadette Peters, the original Dot/Marie.  She and Bohmer have palpable chemistry in both acts, and they are the center of an extraordinarily strong cast.  It’s hard to single out individual performances among the supporting players, because they were all wonderful, but the ones that made the most impression on me were Zoe Vonder Haar as the Old Lady/Blair Daniels (her duet with Bohmer, “Beautiful” at the end of the first act was a highlight). and Steve French as Boatman/Dennis (gruff and gritty in the first act, sensitive and somewhat nerdy in the second).  Both did a great job of portraying very two distinct characters in the different time periods.  I can’t think of a single weak link in the entire cast, however, and all are to be commended for contributing to such a rich and moving theatrical experience.

It’s difficult for me not to compare this production to the televised performance by most of the original Broadway cast, starring Mandy Pantinkin and Bernadette Peters which was shown on TV in 1986 and later released on DVD.  I rented it from Netflix a few months ago and fell in love with the show.  This production, however, holds up very well in comparison.  It is not trying to be that production, and I’m grateful for that, and it stands up very nicely on its own.  This production is uniquely fitted to its environment, and is both visually and vocally stunning.  There are still a few weeks left to see this production, and I highly recommend checking it out.  Just like the painting it re-creates, it is a meticulously assembled, complex and beautiful work of art.

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