Author: Bell, John
Date published: July 1, 2010
Sunday in the Park with George tells a deconstructed story of the fictional lives of Georges Seurat and several generations descended from him. We meet George and his mistress Dot, their daughter Marie and Marie's grandson George. With little time for exposition, we learn that George and Dot's relationship is strained by his inability to show her the affection and attention he gives to his art. She leaves him, gives birth to Marie and finds another man who helps her escape Paris and start a new life in America. Nearly a century later, Act II focuses on the elderly Marie who worries about young George, a contemporary techno-artist who, like his great-grandfather, seems unable to connect.
Any production of Sunday depends on careful casting to ensure that the characters and relationships have texture and depth. Casting may be the one misstep that M.F.A. candidate Richard Biever made in directing this competent but ultimately unaffecting production at Pennsylvania State University (Feb. 19-March 3, 2010).
Wisely, Biever cast two strong singers, Dan Gleason as George and Jamila Sabares-Klemm as Dot/Marie. He and musical director Dan Riddle were fortunate to find young, undergraduate actors capable of handling the significant vocal demands of Sondheim's score. Both delivered musical and nuanced vocal performances with Gleason's high baritone setting the standard for the evening, especially in his skillfully rendered "The Day Off." Sabares-Klemm demonstrated a full, open belt counterbalanced with a lovely, light mezzo-soprano. She approached the role with a keen understanding of the psychological layers and deep subtext that Lapine and Sondheim provide.
Gleason, a bit apple-cheeked for the role, only skimmed the surface of George's obsession and internal struggle, never quite realizing the complex profile of the "fixed, cold" and "unfeeling" man unable to relate to anything beyond his canvas. Other notable members of the ensemble were Martha Traverse's skillfully rendered Old Lady and Nick Reynolds' perfectly pious Jules. Audrey Cardwell's Yvonne brought great vulnerability to her scene with Dot when she admits her envy at Dot's role as an artistic muse.
One of the challenges for any director of a musical is the staging of the musical numbers. Sunday does not require a choreographer, so the director must stage the solo, duet and small ensemble numbers that develop character and situation. Biever's direction of "Color and Light" failed to illuminate the intricate details Sondheim built into the score with musical accents representing George's paint strokes and Dot's primping actions. Likewise, his staging of "We Do Not Belong Together, the climactic song in Dot and George's relationship, was weakened as Biever placed the actors upstage, singing in profile with a canvas scrim between them and much of the audience. The scene was also hindered by an odd, almost laughable, pregnancy pad Sabares-Klemm was wearing.
Overall, however, Biever's design team - Amailia Giokaris, Davon Painter and Alex Noerpel - facilitated the significant demands of the musical on the compact stage of the Downtown Theatre Center in Center Valley, Penn. Giorkaris's scenic representations of the Grande Jatte were functional, cleverly executed and moved gracefully Noerpel's lighting was instinctive and enhanced the highly musical nature of the piece and Painter's costumes were appropriately painterly.
One challenge that any team producing Sunday must face is Act II's "chromolume." The solution here was a sculpted, twisted metal frame housing a scrim-encased lighting instrument that offered little visual interest or excitement. Coupled with flaccid projections, the scene never reached the expected climax of a premiere performance of a modern work of art.
On opening night, Feb. 19, 2010, some of Riddle's tempos were a tad frenetic, especially on "No Life," "Color and Light," and "It's Hot up Here." But they helped to energize the consistently slower pace of the scenes. Also on opening night, the verbal counting Riddle had to call out to hold his orchestra together in "Color and Light" was audible and distracting to the audience. His reduction featured two electronic keyboards, which gave the performance a highly "electric" feel and, at times, overpowered the singers. Those quibbles aside, Riddle's choral work with the ensemble was precise and clean and musical phrases were beautifully shaped and rendered.
JOHN BELL chairs the performing and fine arts department at DeSales University. He is co-author of Music Theory for Musical Theatre.