BWW Review: Shimmering SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at the Guthrie Theater
Design. Pattern. Composition. Balance. Light. Dark. Harmony. These are the principles artist Georges Seurat (as imagined by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine) names in his struggle to paint in a new way. All these principles are present in the musical SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which won the Pulitzer Prize following its Broadway debut in 1984. The current production in Minneapolis is a delight, visually scintillating, gorgeously sung and orchestrated, and successful at melding the two disparate acts into a satisfying whole.
We now know Seurat's new painting style as pointillism, but it was met by disinterest, at best, in the 1880s. He never sold a painting in his lifetime and died at 31. Little beyond that is known about his life, but Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Lapine (book) put those bits together with close study of Seurat's now famous masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Using the alchemy of their own considerable imaginations, they created a masterpiece in another genre: musical theater. It's quirky, too, with a jump of a century between acts. And it works better now than it did when brand new.
When it debuted on Broadway in 1984, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE had the right stars: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But stagecraft then couldn't really meet the needs of a play that is (in part) about dissecting light and making it into art. Now, though, and with the kind of budget the Guthrie commands, both Act 1, set in 1884, and Act 2, set in 1984, shimmer and satisfy.
So kudos are in order for the design team here, especially projection designer Caite Hevner and lighting designer Jane Cox. Scenic designer Jan Chambers has given them a white stage floor and steps, a huge white rectangular frame, and a grand sweep of drapEd White canvas to play upon, and they do so with both skill and taste.
This production is staged in the Guthrie's asymmetric thrust space, which presents challenges for a show based, literally, on a flat painting. But director Joseph Haj manages character groupings and diagonals so as to hit stage picture after stage picture, even for side audiences, while preserving the key moments of tableau upstage to match Seurat's canvas.
Costumer Toni-Leslie James and her skilled team have crafted beautifully detailed period costumes to match the source painting for Act 1. For Act 2, they stay just this side of caricature in suggesting character types for the chic crowd at the gallery opening in 1984 for a new "Chromalume" by Seurat's great grandson, an inventor and sculptor whose work is also about light.
Crucial to the success of any production of this show are the two leads. Randy Harrison is suitably difficult and awkward in Act 1 as Seurat, and far slicker as his great grandson George in Act 2, where he seems more in command. Act 1 belongs to Erin Mackey as Dot, who is sexy and sympathetic and sly and sings with great feeling. She's also fully credible as the elderly wheelchair bound Marie in Act 2; it's a startling, funny, and moving transformation. All the members of the strong ensemble take on new roles in Act 2, and part of what makes this second act work so well are the bold choices they've made in sketching in their characters. The music swells with real grandeur, thanks to their ensemble power, an excellent mic system, and a full 13 piece orchestra behind them, helmed by conductor and pianist Mark Hartman.
The odd structure of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE asks a lot of the audience, but the quality of the team the Guthrie has brought together here, both in terms of design and performance, make it as pleasurable a puzzle as possible. The production runs through the summer, until August 20, and seems definitive to me. There may be effective ways to do a stripped down version of this show, but more than many, it depends on precise and lavish visuals, and that's one of the Guthrie's strong suits.
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson