BWW Reviews: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE Brings Art to Life
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE exploded on stage on October 30th at Creighton University's Lied Center for Performing Arts as a glorious celebration of light, color, and sound. This 1980's musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine is no formula production that entertains without expecting anything in return. It demands that the audience leap into the painting and feel it come to life.
James Lapine's book draws out the story of French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, who painted the famous "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in 1884. Brilliantly portrayed by Creighton alumnus Dan Tracy, George wrestles with his obsessive need to study people and paint them without getting to know them. He is an intriguing character- reserved, driven, and completely focused on reducing the people around him to images. While he is not drawn to interraction with people, they are drawn to him and an arresting assortment of men and women become the objects of his painting. Unfortunately, his preoccupation with his project forms a barrier to his relationship with his semi-literate, life-loving mistress Dot, deftly played by lovely Alexia Lorch. Dot is George's flesh and blood counterpart. She lives for follies and laughter and love, while intense George sees her as art. As hard as George tries to capture her on canvas, she is not content to be only a part of his landscape.
George combines his interest in science with his passion for art, noting that two colors placed closely together will encourage the eye to see another color. Interestingly, costume designer Lindsay Pape sets Dot apart visually by dressing her in blue while the rest of the ensemble is dressed in earthy hues of browns and rusts and tans. This gives her an ethereal feel, even though she is probably the most real of all the characters in the story.
Pape combines soft fabrics with rigid mechanics in her costume construction. Dot's gown for the opening number is both fluid and static. She steps away from her stiff gown as George's model and flits across the stage in undergarments that allow her the freedom of a young woman. When she steps back into the gown and exits the stage, it creates an almost surrealistic effect...is she walking or is she floating?
The real brilliance of this production is in its set and lighting. The set, originally part of a national tour, had been stuck in storage for the past 30 years. Bill Van Deest, Lighting and Scene Design for Creighton, had been yearning to use these pieces and convinced Director Amy Lane to do SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE as part of their 50th Anniversary of Creighton's Fine and Performing Arts Department. The pieces painted to replicate George's pointillist style are brought on stage in layers from the rafters and from the sides, giving a multidimensional effect. A tree disappears as George proclaims he hates those trees. A translucent scrim appears like a framed painting, allowing George to stand on a ladder behind his famous painting and add the finishing touches to a hat as the audience watches through the piece. The effect is remarkable.
Lighting is a critical element of George Seurat's work, making it a particulary difficult task for a production lighting designer. Victoria Vitola excels. In ACT II Seurat's great-grandson, also played by Dan Tracy, has developed a machine called a chromolume that displays art as beams of light. Vitola magnificently lights up the chromolume (an impressive piece designed and constructed by Dan Toberer) like the Fourth of July in the darkened theater.
While I am not a true fan of Sondheim's jumpy melodies and erratic patterns, his music and lyrics are perfectly suited to the rather chaotic pattern of George's life. Staccato notes punctuate his paintbrush. The quickness of the music emphasizes the intensity of his passion. Finally, when George physically moves each person into the position that mimics his famous painting, every piece falls into place and the melody swells with the combined voices of the ensemble, filling the theater with the chillingly beautiful harmony of "Sunday." It nearly draws tears. Because Sondheim's melodies are so complex and unpredictable, they are challenging for singers. Dan Tracy masters the music. He nimbly tackles the quickest of notes, making it look easy. When he slows down and sings with Alexia in "Child and Art," he shows strength and power and blends beautifully with Alexia's pleasing clear voice.
The ensemble is strong, with notable performances by Therese Rennels in a double casting as the old lady/Blair Daniels and Peter Nicholson as Jules/Bob Greenburg. Danny Carraher is amusing as the boatman, adding a jolt of energy to the stage. Stephen Sheftz conducts a talented orchestra composed of both university students and members of the Omaha community.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is one of those rare performances where you spend the next several hours mulling over how "order, design, tension, and balance" meld to become harmony. Chaos butts up against still life. Relationships tangle. People become art.
Amy Lane and her cast and crew have painted a picture I won't soon forget.