Friday, October 25, 2013

From the Archives: Review of a 1997 'Sunday in the Park with George'

Having previously thought that all of my theatre reviews from the late 1990s had been posted here for archival access, just this week I uncovered a piece that had been inaccessible because it had somewhat mysteriously been converted into an old WordPerfect format.

Yesterday I found an online resource that will convert text documents from one format to another and -- ta-dah! -- I have a review of the 1997 joint production by Washington's Arena Stage and Arlington's Signature Theatre of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George.

So, for the first time on line, here is my May 1997 review, which appeared in the Metro Herald under the headline, "Sunday Sings!"

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Washington audiences have an embarrassment of riches available this spring. Within a few days, Chicago, The King and I, and Sunday in the Park with George all opened. Together, these three plays offer examples of the best by the giants of American musical theatre: Bob Fosse, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim.

In a historic collaboration, Arlington's Signature Theatre and Washington's Arena Stage have joined forces to present a play that neither could produce on its own: the Pulitzer-prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. This production is directed by Signature's Eric D. Schaeffer, whose work at the tiny but innovative Signature Theatre has earned him a national reputation, and produced by Arena's outgoing artistic director, Douglas C. Wager.

Like most Sondheim musicals, Sunday is not for everyone. For Sondheim fans, however, it is bedazzling. The intimate setting of Arena's Kreeger Theater is far superior to the larger auditoriums in which earlier Sunday productions have been staged. Sondheim's sophisticated lyrics and intricate melodies and counterpoints are far more easily heard in such a venue.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the smaller auditorium is the ability of the audience to see more closely Patricia Zipprodt's costumes. Because of the foresight of Schaeffer, the costumes used in this production of Sunday are the same ones used originally on Broadway (and since used by the Arlington Players a few years back). Zipprodt has successfully simulated the pointillist style of painting invented by Sunday's protagonist, neo impressionist Georges Seurat, for his masterpiece (now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago) Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.

Seurat's work and style of work is the focus of the first act. George (played by Sal Viviano) is obsessed by light, color, balance, design. He has discovered that it is possible to create the illusion of mixed colors by setting discrete points or dots of color side by side, in juxtaposition to each other. He is fully absorbed by his work, ignoring and therefore losing his mistress, appropriately named Dot (Viviano's real-life spouse, Liz Larsen). We meet the characters whom we see in the final painting, but whether they are real people or the imaginings of George is hard to say.

The second act focuses on another artist, also named George, who may be the great grandson of the first act's George. At least his grandmother, Marie, insists that this is so. Act II's George also works in a new medium, but his primary challenge is raising the money to pursue his art. Tired of criticism that he has lost his way, that his work is no longer new or creative, he travels to France to visit the island of La Grand Jatte. There, he encounters his (perhaps?) great grandmother, Dot, who counsels him to "move on."

This synopsis cannot do the play justice. Sunday in the Park with George is not a typical musical. This is not a simple boy meets girl, boy loses girl scenario. Indeed, there is no conventional plot at all. Through the integration of music, lyrics, movement, lighting, and costumes, composer and playwright raise important issues about artistic integrity, personal relationships, and the importance of family.

Viviano plays the two Georges in contrast. Act I George is cold, obsessive. At first Viviano's stiffness in the first act is off putting, but soon it becomes apparent that this is what drives Dot away, into the arms of the more caring Louis, the baker who takes her to America. Highly rational and highly intellectual, focused laser-like on his creative endeavors, this George will be all too familiar to Washingtonians, who encounter this type every day. Act II George is more well rounded, though still devoted to his work. He seems more able to connect to his fellow human beings, particularly his grandmother, and has a deeper understanding of his own faults and shortcomings.

As Dot and Marie, Liz Larsen is astonishing. Her voice is as clear as a bell, her emotions sincere and convincing. We know she genuinely loves George, but cannot spend her life with him because he has another love his art. Her warmth contrasts suitably with George's chilliness, and the comparison helps us better understand the central character. Singing "Children and Art" in the second act, we begin to understand what really counts in life. And her rendition of "Move On" to and with George in Act II makes it hard to believe that Sondheim has written anything more, well, moving.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Drawn from the professional ranks of New York, regional, and Washington theatre, this cast includes a number of Arena and Signature veterans.

Anyone who works in the non profit world or, for that matter, anyone who is engaged in campaign fundraising will be captivated by the action, lyrics, and dialogue of the Act II number, "Putting It Together," which describes the schmoozing and bootlicking that are necessary to keep one's head above water in these situations.

Schaeffer has done well in bringing Sunday in the Park with George up to date. The modern art in Act II is now computer generated graphics and music, rather than the laser light show that was so cutting edge in 1984. One quibble, however, may be necessary as future productions are planned. The script requires that Marie be born in 1885. With the second act set in 1984, this was not hard to believe many people live to be 98 or 99 years old. Now that the second act has been brought forward to 1996, however, it stretches our credulity to have Marie, now 111 years old, as the grandmother of a 32 year old grandson. Will a revival in 2007 have a 122 year old Marie?

The Arena/Signature Sunday in the Park with George is breathtaking. I hope it will have an extended run that will allow multiple visits for those of us who are truly moved by Sondheim's best work.

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As I dig through paper and virtual files, more surprises may turn up.  Please stay tuned!

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