REVIEW: "Sunday in the Park with George" - Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse
Updated: Jun 20
"...The sardonic surprise is not that George hardly noticed his baby, but that he had found time to father her at all..."
Sondheim's homage to two Georges, the Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his imagined great grandson, illuminates the theatre in Westchester through April 20th, as the Kentwood Players continue to paint a masterpiece in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth, with book by James Lapine and orchestrations by Michael Starobin, this 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning musical is resplendent with a cast of eighteen, mostly playing dual roles. The show is musically directed by Mike Walker, stage managed by John Beckwith and produced by Gail Bernardi and Margie Bates.
An enchanting production overall, with a complex, hauntingly beautiful score by Stephen Sondheim, the musical exemplifies the creation of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which currently hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Bigger than life, and representing a new style of precise creative artistry, the painting is over 10 feet wide and 6 feet high, made up of millions of dots that somehow coalesce into a shimmering, luminous hue. If you’re an art student, you will never look at it the same way again.
Originally premiering Off-Broadway in 1983 as a one act, starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, “Sunday in the Park with George” moved to a two act show on Broadway the following year, winning the Drama Desk for Outstanding Musical, the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical, the NY Drama Critic’s Circle Awards, and nominations for eleven Tony Awards, winning for scenic and lighting design.
Brian Pirnat, who is debuting here, has been seen in “Assassins,” “Follies,” and “High Fidelity,” and Rachel Berman, who has starred recently in “Man of La Mancha” and “Avenue Q,” play the lead characters. Mr. Pirnat elequently portrays both Georges, and Ms. Berman is both original George’s lover and muse, Dot (Lapine’s name brainstorm, based on Seurat’s technique), as well as modern George’s grandmother, Marie. The other characters are all people from the painting, loosely sketched, with invented identities and personalities: a soldier (Alex Norwick), who also plays an artist character named Alex; two young women (Genevieve Marino and Fiona Okida), both named Celeste, who flirt with the soldiers (one is a wooden cut-out), an old lady (Janet Krajeski), imagined as Seurat’s mother in the first act, and Blair Daniels, an art critic in act two.
The nurse is Bouket Fingerhut, who is also Harriet Pawling, a board member of the museum in act two. There’s also a cranky boatman (Vincent Paz Macareno), who doubles as curator Charles Redmond. The baker, Louis (Dot’s betrothed), is played by Shawn Plunkett, who also is Billy Webster, a friend. Elaine (Kate Eberle), the ex, is only Elaine, but I’m sure it’s quite a handful. Jules and Yvonne (Don Schlossman and Dana Weisman), a snarky successful painter and his wife, double up as Bob Greenwood and Naomi Eisen - a museum director and composer.
Frieda and Franz (Jennifer Sperry and Roy Okida), both domestic servants in the first act, become Betty and Dennis in the second act, another artist and technician. Louise, the young daughter of Jules and Yvonne is depicted by two different actors: Savannah Fisher and Rikki Walker. The Mr. and Mrs. American couple with no name (Martin Feldman and Michele Selin), take on Lee Richards, a publicist, and his photographer wife in the second half. And when this memorable cast comes together in a tableau of the painting, it’s magical, a feat made more challenging by the limiting stage.
Scenic Designers Jim Crawford and Doug Carlson has actualized a ravishing world of art from horizontal and vertical lines. Their work is enhanced by the superb effort of Lighting and Sound Designer Bruce Starrett, who has not only achieved a superior, crystal-clear sound performance, but stippled the set with atmospheric color and vibrant light control. Costume Designer Ruth Jackson deserves high praise for spectacular selections of period clothing throughout, and most notably Dot’s (Rachel Berman) spring-loaded step-out gown with its cascade of billows, frills and lace. Wig Design is by Jon Sparks. Special Effects are by Bruce Starrett, Doug Carlson and Michael Thorp. Publicity is by Alison Boole and publicity photos by Shari Barrett.
The story centers on the eternal battle between Seurat’s work and his life with his mistress, Dot, although Lapine has fashioned his book almost entirely fictional, because there is relatively little we know about him. In this story, both Dot and George are emotionally and socially immature. Dot desires a thrilling love life rather than a satisfying or solid one. She seeks out men who will treat her badly, then complains when they do. She enters into a relationship with a man obsessed with his work and incapable of expressing his emotion, and then she pouts when he obsesses over his work and can't say he loves her.
She only exists in her relationship to George and his art. In the opening song, “Sunday in the Park with George,” she sings that she finds George physically attractive but when she speaks rapturously about his stroke and his touch, she's talking about his painting! After all, genuine talent can be extremely sexy. She wants to be the center of his universe, yet she can never be because his art will always come before her. She can only come close when she is the subject of his work – a model.
It doesn't even occur to him that he should change his behavior. That's not even an option. He thinks his mission as an artist gives him universal absolution. But Dot blows a hole in his arrogance in the song “We Do Not Belong Together.” She says to him, “You have a mission. Now I have one, too, George.” Dot is saying to him that creating art may be important, but other things are important too. Interestingly, their two missions are what Marie will sing about in Act II with the second George -- “Children and Art” -- the only two things worth leaving behind when you die. She can no longer afford to put up with George's idiosyncracies. She has to think of her child's future now. She must create a new family for herself. Dot finally leaves for America with the universally-loved Louis because at least he makes an effort to understand her. George will create the art and Dot will raise the child.
In “Finishing the Hat,” George merely uses the creation of art as an excuse for his behavior. In other words, it's not his fault he's inattentive, insulting, thoughtless, rude ‑‑ it's his art's fault, because that's what forces him to be as he is. He justifies the fact that he watches the world rather than participating in it, refusing to play by the rules of the real world. But creating art is not a legitimate excuse for being a heartless, cruel man. And George is asking us to feel sorry for him, poor misunderstood, innocent artist that he is. Perhaps that's Sondheim's greatest achievement with this remarkable song ‑‑ it is beautiful, even a little seductive, but if George himself accepted it, then there would be nothing for him to learn, no reason for him to grow, and no reason for the story to continue.
George has forever lost Dot now, as well as his child. Other people are falling in love, having sex, having affairs, and George, by his own admission, can't look up from his sketch pad. The sardonic surprise is not that George hardly noticed his baby, but that he had found time to father her at all.
At the end of the first act, pandemonium breaks out. People are fighting, yelling, the boatman is chasing Louise. But it's time for George to create art from the chaos of this world.
We hear the creation of art motif from the first moments of the show. Everyone on stage freezes. George says “Order,” and everyone turns to him. He in is control now. He will make art of this. As the motif continues, George recites the words that describe the creation of art: order, design, tension, balance, and harmony. As they move, George directs them, arranges them. By the end of the song, as the melody and harmony builds to a thrilling climax, each character finds his place in this space, in this “perfect park” that George has created, and for the first time in the show, they sing together in harmony.
The story flashes forward one hundred years to 1984. The scene is the auditorium of the Art institute of Chicago, where the Seurat painting hangs. Seurat's great-grandson, also named George, enters pushing a wheelchair with Marie, now 98 years old, and grandmother to the modern George. The modern day George is an inventor/sculptor and we are the audience for his latest work, a light sculpture called Chromolume #7.
The similarities between the two acts is almost overwhelming. The music in Act II is directly based on the music in the first act, even presented in the same order for the most part. Sondheim is in control of repetition where George is not. And it's this minimalist repetition that helps binds the two acts together, making each one incomplete by itself.
George has come full circle, returning to the exact spot where this musical began, on the island where his great-grandfather, his other self, did his greatest work. This is the beginning of the most important sequence in the show, the time when George will finally learn what he needs to learn. It’s also where Dot appears to George in a bittersweet, ghostly romance in which the past is relived and old wounds are healed. By the end of the show, 20th century George finally sees that Dot has something to teach him as well. Their musical argument from Act I (in 1886), “We Do Not Belong Together,” returns at the end of Act II (in 1984) as the inspiring “Move On,” and their love song is finally resolved, after more than a century. No other musical or play has ever reunited the lovers in quite this strange fashion, yet it is somehow satisfying for us.
Both main characters – French post-impressionist painter George Seurat and his modern but made-up great-grandson, are all about their work and they are both clumsy at relationships. Original George is a color theory nerd who invents a new way of painting, is rejected by his peers, completes just six major canvases in his lifetime and never sells one. Modern George seems most concerned with securing commissions and connecting with wealthy patrons. Both are terrible boyfriends.
Finally 20th Century George recites the magic words, the words Seurat began the show with, the words Dot recorded faithfully in her book. And as the characters in the painting return, as the painting comes to life in front of George, he recaptures the beauty of his great-grandfather's work.
We see that Seurat's magic words don't just apply to painting; they also apply to this musical. Order, design, composition, tension, balance, and harmony -- all describe Sondheim's score, Lapine's book, the sets, the special effects, and the lighting. These words also apply to life. George has to learn to infuse his life and his work with a clearer design, with a healthy tension, with a more thoughtful composition, with genuine balance, with light and harmony. George is finally ready to begin anew. He has returned to the “so many possibilities” of the “blank page or canvas.” Perhaps he will try again with Elaine, his ex. Perhaps he'll find someone new and build a life with her. Maybe he'll even have children.
Or maybe he won’t.
“Sunday in the Park with George,” a Kentwood Players production at Westchester Playhouse, continues through April 20th, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Ticket Information is at: http://www.kentwoodplayers.org/show/2019/1