Review: Stephen Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE Thrills at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall

The Summer of Sondheim!

By: Jul. 01, 2022

"White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony." --George's opening lines from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

White, a blank stage. The challenge: Making it come alive through acting, singing, staging, lighting, costumes and heart. And that's exactly what director Jack Holloway and his young cast and crew, with only four weeks rehearsal time, have achieved with SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

Art isn't easy. And creating works about the actual creation of famous artworks may prove even harder. We've seen the movies about celebrated artists (The Agony and the Ecstasy [Michelangelo], The Girl with a Pearl Earring [Vermeer]) or the plays (Red [Rothko] and After Magritte [um, Magritte]); some are more successful than others, but all show to some degrees the struggle of creation, the sweat that goes into the grinding work on a painted canvas-strewn road to eternity. Perhaps the ultimate creation about the act of creating, "the art of making art," is SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine), the 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama about Georges Seurat's pointillistic masterpiece, a painting literally created by a myriad of dots, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.

The painting is currently one of the key pieces hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, and when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine ventured to view it in person forty years ago, they saw all those figures posing in the work, disconnected bodies facing in different directions, but realized someone was missing: The artist. What follows would become one of Sondheim's most famous scores, with some of his finest songs including "Sunday," "Putting It Together," "Move On," and "Finishing the Hat," the latter used by Sondheim as the title for the first part of his lyric-filled memoir. Famous as the show is, and as beloved by Sondheim fanatics as it obviously has become, it's sadly seldom produced, so when some theatrical organization proudly tackles this beast of a show, then you owe it to yourself to go.

The young adults of the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts (summer camp alumni) are bravely performing SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at the Murray Theatre in Ruth Eckerd Hall as part of their Summer of Sondheim; it runs through Saturday, July 2nd. (Into the Woods will be performed by a younger group later in the summer.) Over the years I have had the honor of experiencing so many summer shows by these amazingly talented students, from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Wizard of Oz, Sweeney Todd, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to last year's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. They've all been wonderful, bursting with verve and talent. But nothing could prepare me for the excellence of this.

Act 1 of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE follows a fictionalized look at real-life painter George Seurat as he obsessively sketches and paints the denizens of this waterside park: Fishing girls, bathing boys, soldiers, a family, a one-eyed boatsman, a bratty little girl, a chef, and the hidden love of George's life, appropriately named Dot. We follow his obsessive need to finish this gigantic work over any feelings and attractions to the opposite sex. He chooses immortality over his love for Dot, and the work he creates is at first met with derision by the public. (It's hard to believe that he never sold a work in his lifetime.) But history gets things right and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte would become a masterpiece after his death at 31 years of age. Act 2 takes place in the 1980's, with George's grandson, also named George, trying to create a modern sculptural piece of light (Chromolume #7) at a time when marketing matters as much as any painting or sculpture. But the modern world and the world of Seurat's original painting come together at the end, and to quote Richard E. Grant in The Player, "there's not a dry eye in the house."

As the title character, Chris Cavazza reaches new heights. With his pointed beard (the beard almost seems like a character in its own right), he not only looks like the actual Seurat but also resembles obsessives of the film world--George Lucas and a young Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Cavazza's George is so focused, his intense eyes drilling holes in everything he observes. Holding his paint brush like a dart, he attacks the canvas, pricking it with dots, stabbing it with color. He is a man driven, a savant, his life otherwise lacking spice. "I'm not hiding behind my canvas," George says at one point. "I'm living in it!" His goal is to turn chaos into order, instability into balance. This is a star-making role for Mr. Cavazza, the one that people talk about and directors of upcoming musicals need to go out of their way to see. He hits some incredible notes; at one point he sings the word "Sunday," extending the note like a Sondheimized Bill Withers.

There is a moment when Mr. Cavazza re-enacts a dog that he's painting, and the actor rolls over, barking; he's like a young Robin Williams here, acting as if the canine had possessed his soul. He changes his voice, becoming multiple personalities, like Sybil as the world's most famous Pointillist. Such a joy to watch. And on top of all of this, his "Finishing the Hat" is superb.

Mr. Cavazza is equally strong as the other George, the grandson. In "Putting It Together," we see the Jekyll and Hyde quality of an inhibited artist whose work-and whose life-is on exhibition. Mr. Cavazza's George has mastered the art of the public smile and the private snarl. If you ever doubt the future of musical theatre, then Mr. Cavazza and the rest of the cast will fill your heart with so much hope.

We see George's opposite with Dot, his lively chief model who dreams of being in the follies. Where George is detached precision, Dot is fire. Lindsey Fabian outdoes herself as the attitudinal Dot. Posing for George's painting, she squints her eyes in the sunlight, bored and frustrated. She tries to connect with George, a man who can't connect with anything other than his art. And what a voice! Ms. Fabian tackles some of Sondheim's most difficult lyrics with aplomb, as if she's striving to win a Tongue-Twister Championship (is there such a thing?)

I adore the way Dot sings the names of her infatuations--her future love, Louis, she sings with a lilt in her voice, but when she calls out the name "George," it's filled with a combination of love and irritation. (Irritation, it seems, has become Dot's own obsessive art form.) Her singing is out of this world, especially the stellar "We Do Not Belong Together." Ms. Fabian has always been an incredible vocalist, but she has also upped her acting game in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

When Ms. Fabian and Mr. Cavazza are together, we feel their connection and become sad when that connection cannot be realized. And when their two worlds merge at the end with the moving "Move On," I worry about anyone who doesn't get emotional here. Several audience members could be seen wiping away tears after such a heartfelt duet.

Dior Dollmont as the Old Lady also connects with George; I like how she's not afraid to touch his face as she sings. I may not be a fan of her old woman make-up, but she makes up for it by commanding the stage with tons of spunk and spirit. Lindsey Weidenfeller offers Ms Dollmont a fine foil as her annoyed nurse.

Cody Farkas, always so good onstage, makes for an almost goofily snotty and snobby Jules, a man who can't quite grasp the painterly revolution on the canvas in front of him; Cameron Swango is marvelously mocking as his other half. Seaira Anderson stands out as the German coachman, Franz. Alexander Colletti is striking as the chef, Louis, and adds so much joy to the part, although I couldn't always hear him. Robert Matson is terrific as the cranky eyepatch-donning boatman who always seems to be chasing the bratty Louisa, nicely played by young Beatrice Ford. And Skylar Carlson and McKenzie Carlson, both portraying girls named Celeste, do well with their song "Gossip."

The talented Carissa Amoroso, Christian Ross, and Emily Lavechia all offer strong support. Dylan Odom breathes so much life into the part of a soldier, and as the other soldier, a mute, Graham Mastro steals his scenes; he's like a young Harpo Marx, his eyes seeming to almost pop out of their sockets.

The vocals and harmonies are divine, thanks to music director Yohance Wicks. The musicians, seen at the back of the stage, keep the show moving: Kyle Collins, Susan Dollmont and Tristan Goodrich. The set is appropriately sparse, bookended by empty frames (and reminiscent of ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition album cover).

Best of all tech-wise are Betty-Jane Parks' projections, wonderfully creative and compelling, which help tell the story with various versions of Seurat's most famous work. Mike Shine's lighting is fine, but I was underwhelmed by the Chromolume #7 light show. And Mary Kraack's costumes suit the musical perfectly.

Make no mistake, this production in the Murray Theatre exists because of one soul: Jack Holloway. His staging, his work with bettering the actors, is beyond inspiring; it's miraculous what he has accomplished with these young performers.

I've seen so many summer camp shows over the years here, but this one hits a new pinnacle. You get a feeling from the cast and crew that they know they're in the midst of something truly exciting and special. Stephen Sondheim may have passed away last November, but through his works and through those who perform them, he still lives. It's so encouraging seeing a whole new generation discover and dive into his magic, to not only understand Sondheim but to bring him and one of his most difficult works to life. And they will pass this joy onto the next generation.

I know that SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE may not be for everyone; it doesn't contain singing candelabras, man-eating plants or rapping Founding Fathers. It boasts one of Sondheim's most uncompromising scores, but if you give in, the delights are infinite. There's no way you can't get misty-eyed at the end of Act 1 or at the end of the show, when the heavenly song "Sunday" is performed, especially when sung so beautifully, so angelically. Sondheim himself would get misty-eyed whenever he heard it performed; of all of the songs that he has written, this remained one of his personal favorites. The show itself is the most autobiographical of his works--a heartbreaking yet empowering look into the process of creation, where man gets to understand what it feels like to be God.

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