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BWW Reviews: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - A Perfect Show at the Park with EPAC

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges-Pierre Seurat," which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most famous of Impressionist-period paintings, if not of paintings in general. It has even been worked into Looney Tunes cartoons and, of all things, Playboy bunny photoshoots. Small wonder that the enormous (7 x 10) painting that Seurat worked on for two years to experiment with light and color, as well as its painter, is sufficient to inspire a Sondheim musical. Like its muses, the painting and Seurat, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is larger-than-life, and thoroughly surprising. Like the painting itself, it's also absolutely delightful. Nominated for... well, everything... when it opened in 1984, and winning a Pulitzer Prize as well as various Tonys and Drama Desk awards, the Stephen Sondheim vehicle (with book by James Lapine) is a masterpiece, standing as one of Sondheim's best works despite its original mixed reviews by critics who, like Seurat's critics, could not understand what they were seeing.

Currently at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, directed by Edward R. Fernandez, the show is once more on stage to surprise and delight those who understand it, and to confound those who don't really understand the experience of creating art. Anyone who's ever been horrified at having to stop to eat, or to talk to someone, or to go out, or to work, when they're on a roll with their painting, or drawing, or writing, or giving birth to a brilliant idea, on the other hand, will identify immediately with the show's hero, George - here played by Sean Young, a veteran of the part at EPAC, with a warm familiarity that shows that not only does he know the part, but he's known that experience himself.

He also plays George's great-grandson, George, a man who's an artist like Seurat. But while the first George could throw himself into his work to the point of losing focus on his relationships, the latter George works well with relationships, but can't find a focus for his art. Unlike the first, he's making money; also unlike the first, he's not finding satisfaction in his work. Young does a splendid job of illustrating the serious differences between the two Georges as he performs. He's a talented actor and singer, and he breathes an all-important different life into each of the Georges.

The first act, set during Seurat's period of sketching and painting his masterwork, in 1884 and following, covers the first George's drawings of people in the park and his testy relationships with his subjects, particularly the magnificent Old Lady, at times clearly the artist's mother, played by Elizabeth Pattey. Pattey has played her before, and plays her well enough to make the part entirely her own. The role might as well have been written for her, so well do she and the Old Lady mesh on stage. Kathleen Harris Brantman plays her nurse, called upon to remember parasols, books, and the locations of trees in the park for her employer, who pontificates on the glories of the past. She does so with immense forebearance... and with a hope to get away to see the gentleman at the park who has captured her fancy.

Dot, George's long-suffering mistress and model, is portrayed by Stacia Smith, who not only sings beautifully but who gives the songs some charmingly funny physical twists to accompany herself. Her opening "Sunday in the Park with George," which complains delightfully about the pains of modeling in heavy clothing on a hot day, as well as about George himself, is one of the funniest moments on the EPAC stage in some time, and there have been many. But she's even better in the second act, playing Marie, George and Dot's granddaughter (and grandmother of the second artist George). Marie is frail and birdlike, slowly withering, where Dot was all vitality and fertility, but is strong enough to bring her grandson the message that "Children and Art" are the only legacies that anyone can really hope to leave, as she strives to inspire him to find his artistic vision.

Kristie Ohlinger, one of EPAC's best stage regulars, is in both acts, as indeed the whole cast is, in their century-later incarnations at the museum where "Sunday in the Park" hangs, but she is particularly amusing in the second act as Naomi Eisen, modern composer, trying to work incomprehensible musical accompaniments to the second George's incomprehensible art installments. Richard Bradbury, previously seen as Roy Cohn in EPAC's ANGELS IN AMERICA, and who cannot possibly be on stage too often, plays the dual roles of competing artist Jules in the first act, a man torn between not understanding George's work and being jealous of it, and Bob Greenberg, a fawning museum director, in the second.

The second act is not only a followup to George a century later, showing what has happened to his (fictional) family, but a full-circle completion of the first, in which George's great-grandson strives to find his own relation to artistic experimentation and to life by returning to the site of Seurat's painting and reading Dot's book, that Marie has kept safe for him.

It's an emotionally charged and intellectually complex show, touching on love, death, and the changing of the seasons of life, as well as on the nature and necessity of art.

Fernandez has collected one of the best casts the area has seen in some time, full of fine performers with fabulous voices, and music director JP Meyer has charge of a truly excellent pit orchestra, one of the two best this reviewer has encountered in some time. Set designer Mike Rhoads has done the show justice in the sets, including moving backdrop parts and projections that bring Le Grande Jatte to life both at the time of Seurat's sketches and in 1984 when the second George visits. Costume supervisor Jennifer Farrington and Kate Willman have done magnificent work - the costumes are accurate to the painting and vivid, and altogether beautifully done. This is certainly the most fully-realized Sondheim production in the area this year, and the best.

It is rare that a reviewer can say "there is nothing wrong with this production." There is nothing wrong with this production. In fact, everything is right with it. Anyone who does not see this production has truly missed out on one of the most extraordinary theatre experiences in the area this season. Fernandez should be proud of himself and of his cast and crew for this production. They've done heroic work here that deserves recognition, and a full house.

At EPAC through May 17. It's a must-see - drop everything else on your schedule if necessary in order to go see this show. Call 717-733-7966 or visit for tickets and information.

From This Author - Marakay Rogers

 America's most uncoordinated childhood ballet and tap student before discovering that her talents were music and writing, Marakay Rogers finally traded in her violin for law school when she realized... (read more about this author)

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