Sunday in the Park with George: Still Hungry Theater, 3/5/11

7 03 2011

“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony.”

Much as French impressionist Georges Seurat seeks to capture a shimmering, fleeting moment of harmony in his masterwork “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Still Hungry Theater makes a valiant effort to bring order to James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical about the art of making art: Sunday in the Park with George. Yet it is a challenge.

Sunday in the Park with George is a complex theme and variation. Act I chronicles 19th century artist Georges Seurat’s struggle to connect his art and his personal life. He lives in his pointillist paintings to the detriment of his relationships, particularly with his mistress Dot. Generations later in Act II, George’s great-grandson similarly struggles to balance disparate worlds of (commercialized) art and personal life. Sunday is a careful compositional balance between these two Georges – and concludes in a time collapse between the French impressionist and the contemporary American artist. The past and the present coexist, blend, harmonize, and grant the once-divided artist a mythic wholeness of being.

When well-directed, Sunday in the Park with George stuns; it is my favorite Sondheim, if not my favorite musical. The luminous Sam Buntrock revival starring Daniel Evans as George and Jenna Russell as Dot / Marie will always echo into future stagings for me. Still Hungry Theater’s production is uneven, but moments of harmony still shine through in this rich, rewarding work.

Still Hungry Theater is a troupe of gifted young actors who perhaps do not have the life experience to tackle Sunday quite yet, although they certainly demonstrate talent, passion, and promise. Kristin Towers-Rowles’ Dot is pitch-perfect, with a beautiful command of Sondheim’s score – but her Act II Marie, George’s grandmother, does not read as 93 years old with such a pristine vocal tone. Contemporary mannerisms and vocal inflections sometimes sneak into the 19th century, but the ensemble is undeniably tight, and director Nicole Rossi generally strikes a good balance between drama and musical comedy.

The linchpin is, of course, the direction and performance of George: here portrayed by Keith Barletta, who also produced the show. Barletta has undeniable talent, but his take on George feels misguided. For George Seurat – like Stephen Sondheim – art is not inspiration. Art is a craft: almost scientific, carefully constructed. Artists do not have flashes of unconscious genius. They obsess over minutia like finishing the hat, an isolating and potentially life-consuming endeavor. “Artists are bizarre, fixed, cold,” Dot sings – yet Barletta plays George as a highly theatrical artist rather than a distanced, socially-awkward intellectual. Barletta’s florid gestures exude passion for both his art and his mistress; his exaggerated physicality contradicts the text, which focuses on the self-enclosed artist’s initial struggle to socially connect.

The character requires a particular mastery of the gaze: differentiating George’s artistic, objectifying gaze from his gaze of desire for and understanding of Dot. The latter gaze is reciprocal: George must himself be open to the gaze of desire and understanding, a space of vulnerability that he fears. Enter the ghost of the London revival: Daniel Evans’ George only reaches the vulnerability of a reciprocal gaze in Act II’s “Move On,” when he finally reconciles his art and personal life. This passionate gaze is all the more powerful for having been withheld earlier in the show. Yet Barletta’s George probes deep into Dot’s soul with his piercing blue eyes from the outset of Still Hungry Theater’s production. This gives George little physical arc or development in the show. Barletta has a beautiful grasp of the embrace of life to which George should grow; this passion simply needs to be reigned in to an awkward, internal tension between art and life at the beginning of the musical.

The intimacy of the Complex Theatre brings new light to the show by immersing the audience in the art, whether the vivid recreation of “La Grande Jatte” at the end of Act I or the whirling chromolume of Act II. Kelsey Bullock’s set design employs hanging canvases that can be turned from an empty, open white to the beautifully-painted background of Seurat’s most famous work. Not all set elements are so well-constructed, including a copy of “Bathers at Asnieres” seemingly taped together from 8.5×11″ paper. Still, Cindy Bullock’s costumes are some of the most impressive I have ever seen in black box LA theater: bringing lush and detailed life to Seurat’s painting in Act I and capturing the 1980s art world of Act II.

Andrew Zackary’s music direction is generally crisp, and the pared-back orchestration of piano (Karen Waddill), violin (Kevin Schwarzwald), and clarinet (Jessica Neilson) is a surprisingly full-voiced, lovely underpinning to such a vocally-talented ensemble. I would never turn down an opportunity to immerse myself in the intricacies of Sondheim’s score, skillfully performed in this production.

“White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” This may very well be my motto for theater-going. Despite a some uneven elements, Still Hungry Theater’s production of Sunday in the Park with George exudes luminous possibility and promise in a passionate, young company. I look forward to their next endeavor.

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6 responses

7 03 2011
Andrew Zackary

Thanks for the kind words!

However, you are mistaken about the opening bars of “Sunday.” I did not add a single note. It’s the rest of Act One that’s completely unison and George’s line “Harmony” initiates the first harmony of the entire show.

I would not dream of rewriting Sondheim.

Andrew

7 03 2011
staylorellis

Thank you for the correction, Andrew! How interesting. In the London cast recording that I am most familiar with, it sounds like a unison there … but I went back to the score, and you are indeed correct!

7 03 2011
Andrew Zackary

No worries, the London cast has the harmony as well, but it is indeed very soft and almost imperceptible. The majesty of that number is the dynamic build, not the harmonic one.

It’s just nice to have a passionate voice on our side! And I share your enthusiasm for this piece…it’s truly a remarkably written show. At post-show powwows, many of the cast members and I marvel at what Sondheim can accomplish with a single word or even a single note. It’s awe-inspiring.

7 03 2011
Andrew Zackary

Also, we had a Clarinet player in the pit (Jessica Neilson) who was not in the program, and so also deserves the credit you so graciously lauded on our orchestra. :]

Andrew

7 03 2011
staylorellis

Of course, will certainly add!

8 03 2011
Kristin Towers-Rowles

Hi Sarah,

I wanted to thank you for your kind words about my work as Dot. It has been a lifelong dream to play this role. The whole cast is extremely dedicated and grateful that you came to review our show. Blessings to you, Kristin

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