Although we see many modern musicals based on books, movies, and straight theater, a simple painting seems unlikely inspiration for a musical – except in the hands of Stephen Sondheim. Georges Seurat took two full years painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, one of the first classic examples of pointillism. It takes a voice as strong as Sondheim’s to bring SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE to life, a musical spanning two centuries, several generations, and the complexities of art itself, centered around the painting.
The two acts of the play are separate narratives with a common thread. In Act I, the audience follows a fictionalized Seurat through the creation of his opus, despite the criticism of his mentor and the neglect he shows for his lover Dot. All the while, Georges is inspired by the quirky characters on the island, including a vulgar boatman, girls vying for a place in his painting, and his offbeat aging mother. We fast forward to the 1980s in Act II, when Seurat’s reluctant great-grandson George, also an artist, goes through a crisis attempting to find his voice in a commercialized, fast-paced art world. The play’s version of an entr’acte is “It’s Hot Up Here,” a hilarious revisiting of the subjects of the painting who, regrettably, have been standing in the blazing sun on the island for over a hundred years by the beginning of Act II.
Pinnworth Productions brings the show to life in grand fashion, with a perfectly designed set involving the use of a folding backdrop where the scene is set via digital moving images. (While there were major technical issues with the actual slides on opening night, the beauty of the concept, both visually and from a staging perspective, was still apparent.) The play is double cast, with each actor handling a part in both time periods. As Dot and Georges in Act I and Marie and great-grandson George in Act II, Laurie Gougher and John Zimmerman lead a supremely talented cast in bringing the art to life. Zimmerman is a commanding presence on stage, both as the obsessive painter and his anxious ancestor; his gruff vocal tone lends itself well to both humor and drama, moments of which he performs skillfully as both characters. Gougher has a clear, resonant voice that seems to hang in the air after every note, and she perfectly balances George, both as his despondent lover in Act I and the gentle voices of his past in Act II. It’s a feat to carry both roles so smoothly.
Zimmerman and Gougher set the bar high, but the ensemble shines brightly as well. As the mentor Jules in Act I and his art museum director in Act II, John M. Shanken-Kaye brings a softness to the edges of both characters, and Pamela “PJ” Jorgensen transitions seamlessly between Jules’ shrill wife Yvonne to the brusque behind-the-scenes Naomi. Susan Fowler and Jenny Weiner add some amusing banter as Seurat’s mother and her nurse, respectively, in Act I, and the actresses carry many harmonies with their rich voices. Other standouts include Megan Sherow and Elizabeth Lackey as the two Celestes, who are desperate in Act I to be painted by Seurat and to fall in love with the island’s two handsome soldiers (played admirably by Dwayne Bailey and the plywood cutout he carries with him).
Director Lou J. Stalsworth and music director Peter de Mets bring together impressive staging with seamless singing to make every member of this cast and every element of this show a work of art in and of itself. While the inspiration painting is certainly a classic, players such as these elevate SUNDAY IN THE PARK to its rightful level of masterpiece in its own respect.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Lou J. Stalsworth
January 12-27, 2013
Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road
West Windsor, NJ 08550