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Saturday, 07 January 2012 11:50

'Sunday in the Park with George': impression, illusion, and some confusion

Written by Connie Bollinger
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repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Impression, illusion, and yes, some confusion abounds in this lavish musical but, hey, it's Sondheim and he seldom lets us off easy.

Sunday in the Park with George is undoubtedly a work of musical genius, an impossibly complex and multi-layered opus, a breathtaking challenge to even the trained ear. However, don't think you'll come away humming any of the tunes.

Like the artist Georges Seurat and his canvas, Stephen Sondheim gives us the impression of melody and tempo but seldom brings either into sharp focus long enough for those of us without a trained ear to hear the details. However, on those occasions when the light and shadow resolve themselves, the harmonies are incredibly rich and bold and astonishing.

Having some experience as a singer, I am astounded at the level of professionalism exhibited by the individual actors and the choral ensembles in this piece. To say Sundays is a challenge for the actors is putting it mildly. The live orchestra conducted by Musical Director F. Wade Russo also met their musical challenges with perfect aplomb. One has to hear these talented musicians to believe them.

The story is based on the French Impressionist artist Georges Seurat and follows his creation of the famous "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The sets, in the hands of Scenic Designer Adrian W Jones, are spectacular, innovative, and entirely effective and perfectly re-create the painting. Together with the amazing costumes of Alejo Vietti and the lighting effects of John Lasiter, every actor blends into the painting perfectly. When they are still for even a second, they are living inside the canvass. It's incredible.

People come in and out of the painting, emerging again and again to help tell the story of a tortured and solitary artist who willingly but not happily gives up any shred of a normal life to perfect this new style of painting. Seurat paints with dots of light, placing colors next to one another in tiny dots, forcing the eye to resolve the dots into a focused color. No one understood his painting at the time, but that only drove him deeper and deeper into his art.

Seurat, played by the wonderfully talented Ron Bohmer, is a complicated, sad man, wishing for the normal life he sees around him on those Sundays in the park, but unwilling to take even a minute to attain that life.

Seurat's mistress, Dot, is played by Erin Davie. Miss Davie's Dot is feisty, funny, wistful and determined. When she finally understands that George can't change into the man she wants him to be, she moves on; but not before singing a lovely duet with him, "We Do Not Belong Together". Erin Davie has a beautiful, easy voice, understated and convincing.

The rest of the ensemble cast is perfect, moving with mysterious ease, hitting their positions with the precision of dancers. Well done, Director Rob Ruggiero and Choreographer Ralph Perkins.

However. For me the second act, set in 1984, lacked focus. Aside from the opening musical number in which all the characters sing of how much they hate hanging around in the painting, the second act offered nothing but an unconvincing resolution to a contrived conflict. Re-incarnated George meets with the ghosts of his mother and lover to gain the insight of people skills and to gain a new focus on his art. Sorry. I found Act II trite and not that interesting. Sometimes resolution and redemption aren't what's needed. A good strong period does a better job.

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