BWW Exclusive: John Bambery Paints the Town in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and Recalls His Visit with Chita Rivera
Critics are calling San Francisco Playhouse's revival of "Sunday in the Park With George" a "masterpiece." But its director, Bill English, found out firsthand that "Art isn't easy," to quote one of the show's lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In putting it together (with James Lapine's libretto), English knew he had cast "the perfect Dot" in the award-winning actress Nanci Zoppi.
However, the Bay Area performer who was penciled in as George Seurat, the show's pointillist painter, had to drop out of the picture. So English held auditions in the Big Apple for a new leading man. And by George, he found him in New York actor John Bambery, whose credits include the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
English said: "Obviously, John's got a great voice, but I liked what a good actor he is, and how young he is. Seurat was 31 when he died, and he [often] comes off older than that, and I wanted him to be a kid. Seurat's not just obsessive and monomaniacal. He's full of joy and love, too. John's succeeded in bringing out all those dimensions, and he and Nanci have terrific chemistry.''
Reviewers have raved about Bambery's passionate portrait of Seurat and his attempts to connect with Dot, his mistress-model. In his For All Events writeup, Steve Murray said: ''In a major casting coup, East Coaster John Bambery was flown in to play George, and we're rewarded with a spectacular, star-making performance.'' SF Theatre Blog added: "We hope he sticks around awhile.''
We chatted with Bambery about what drew him to Seurat and the musical's celebration and re-creation of his 1884 painting: "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The Florida native, 31, also shared his most memorable moments working with Chita Rivera and Roger Rees on "The Visit." And he recalled playing a daffy Adolf Hitler in a "gay romp" at Juilliard.
Congrats, John, on "Sunday in the Park With George"! Your co-star, Nanci Zoppi, says: "It's my favorite show and Dot is my dream role of all time.'' When did you first discover "Sunday in the Park," and were you ever intimidated to do it?
I first saw the PBS version [with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters] in high school. And I've listened to Jake Gyllenhaal's recent recording, and I loved that. But I've never been intimidated by it. I wanted this role to be my own. To find my own voice. It's like doing Shakespeare. Yeah, plenty of people have done this role, and done it really well, but what are you gonna bring to it? It's such a bitch of a part, and it's so good. Some people wrongly think "Sunday" is about some highfalutin and stubborn artist. But it's really about challenging yourself to go beyond your capabilities and find something new. And everyone can relate to that.
Nanci's won raves for doing three shows at San Francisco Playhouse, but you're making your West Coast debut. Nanci says: ''John's a wonderful guy. Everybody took to him right away. We also got to know each other outside of rehearsal, so I went over to his house. He and his fianceé [Emily Ferranti] made me dinner, and we worked on a jigsaw puzzle of the [Seurat] painting.''
Yeah, that was really nice. Liberty makes a jigsaw puzzle that's laser-cut and wood. It's beautiful and smells like oak. The pieces are cut out of the different characters. And it was superhelpful in learning our lines and in being able to put together the painting.
What's it like working at San Francisco Playhouse?
Pretty incredible. I love and trust Bill [English] so much. Give me a role like this, and I'll work my ass off for you. We've got a great cast, and I love Nanci. We play off each other so well. She sends and receives with me, like a f*cking dream. I couldn't imagine a better Dot. I think my favorite part of the show is when we sing "Move On." It hits me like a ton of bricks every time.
A couple of critics cited "The Day Off," where George does a one-man duet between two dogs, as one of the show's highlights. What's it like to tackle that? And did you get any inspiration from Emmy? (Emmy is a lovable golden retriever who's the mascot of San Francisco Playhouse. She lounges in the lobby and belongs to Bill and Susi Damilano, the theater's co-founders.)
That duet is one of the hardest sings in the show, and it's my first song. If I don't take care of my voice, or if I've had too much fun [the night before], my voice is screwed for the rest of the show. So I want to be playful, but I also have to pace myself. I'm doing eight shows a week. ... I love Emmy. She's the best. She came to rehearsals and watched me do the dog song. And Susi said: ''I had to hold Emmy to the ground. She wanted to jump up onstage and play.'' Now, that's the best compliment I've ever gotten!
"Sunday in the Park" is about so many things, like parents and painters, and "Children and Art."
That is what's so cool. For example, Emily's mother has been dealing with some early on-set dementia. Emily's been touring a lot and on Broadway, but we've now been spending more time with her mom, and this show kinda brings it full circle. When I do my scenes with Maureen [McVerry, who plays George's mother in "Sunday"], it's super-raw and accessible because I go home and see my future mother-in-law. And her name is Dorothy. I call her Dot. This play has brought me a lot closer to her. This show is so rich.
But this isn't your first time playing an artist. Tell us about "Daddy Issues: A Gay Romp Through History, Starring Adolf Hitler."
It's a beautifully written play by Ted Malawer. I played Hitler as a flamboyant but very suppressed homosexual artist. And his dad was very hard on him. There was a trench-warfare tap number, and it inexplicably became a wacky musical. It was a lot of fun.
Plus, you did Fred Ebb and John Kander's "The Visit" at Williamstown in 2014. You and Michelle Ventimilla played Young Anton and Young Claire, the youthful versions of Chita Rivera and Roger Rees' characters. Ben Brantley in the N.Y. Times singled out you and Michelle for your "rapt, erotic pas de deux, choreographed by Graciela Daniele.'' What was it like to work with Chita?
You can't learn the amount of grace Chita brings with her and carries into a room. She's the perfect musical-theater artist. I've never seen anyone so inspiring. She was 82. And doing eight shows a week. And she'd show up two hours before every call. Chita also did this thing that she only seems to do with young women. I introduced her to Emily, and Chita grabbed her by the face and stared into Emily's eyes for a good 2 minutes. Then, Chita let go, nodded and went back to doing her makeup. Michelle said: "Chita once did the same thing to me. It's amazing. It's like you see the universe." And I thought: "Oh, f*ck, I wish Chita did that with my face.''
And you worked with another Tony-winning legend: Roger Rees.
That was a tough one because Roger passed soon after, and we had become pretty close. He might've had health problems, but he didn't share them. He was one of those beautiful, beautiful theater personality-actors. He originally was a fine-arts painter and was hired to paint backdrops for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Someone asked if he wanted to join the RSC, so he auditioned and worked his way up. Roger was an incredible craftsman. He had to do this serious, pretty heavy piece [in "The Visit"}, and every night, we entered from the same portal. Right before we went on, he'd tell me the dirtiest joke and try to get a laugh out of me.
"The Visit" opened in New York City in 2015, but you didn't move with it and make your Broadway debut. What happened?
I got the offer to do ''The Visit'' in New York, but it was my second year at Juilliard. I talked to the higherups at school, and they said: "We can't swing you doing Juilliard and the show. You have to make a choice." And I knew the greatest artistic challenge would be staying at Juilliard. Terrence McNally and John Kander [and Fred Ebb] wrote a work of genius. But as beautiful as "The Visit" is, we knew it wouldn't run terribly long. It's too unique. Anyway, a really good friend, John Riddle, replaced me. And that was his dream: to do musicals. Now, he's in "Frozen." But that wasn't quite mydream. I want to be doing plays: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen.
To bring things back to "Sunday in the Park," Dot and George sing "We Do Not Belong Together." But in real life, you and Emily, your girlfriend of over eight years (and future wife), have found that you DO belong together. How did you propose to her?
One of my buddies owns a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I did "Cat Ballou" at a theater out there. Emily came out to see me [two years ago], so we rented a Jeep and headed into the mountains. In the morning, I made her breakfast, and she was crying about what a beautiful experience it was and "how we don't know what's coming, but that's beautiful, too." So I then I knelt down and picked a flower from our campsite. I wrapped it around her finger and asked her to marry me. She thought I was kidding. I told her I had already talked to her sisters and parents, and she cried even more. Then, we went into town and picked out her ring.
So when is the big wedding day?
We've had a few. My agent says anytime you set a wedding date, you'll get a job that definitely conflicts with it, but we'll get there!
"Sunday in the Park With George" plays now through Sept. 8 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco, Calif. Tickets, $20-$125. Box office: (415) 677-9596. For more information, visit sfplayhouse.org.
Photos by Ken Levin