Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sunday in the Park with George
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery


Randy Harrison, Emily Gunyou Halaas,
Christine Toy Johnson, Paul Nakauchi, Ann Michels,
Sasha Andreev, and Erin Mackey

Photo by T. Michael Erickson
If a practice three years running means it has become a tradition, the Guthrie has a tradition of staging a big, bright musical on the Wurtele Thrust Stage during the summer months. For the past three years these drew from top-drawer classic Broadway—My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and last year's South Pacific, all three given splendid productions. The tradition endures for a fourth year, but gives us a post golden age musical: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George. It is the first Sondheim work performed by the Guthrie since moving to its new home on the banks of the Mississippi in 2006. And how is it? To quote a line from the character Dot, artist Georges Seurat's invented model, muse and lover, singing about the enduring value of art: "All it has to be is good ... and George, you're good, you're really good."

Sunday in the Park with George has a most slender narrative, focusing rather on its theme, the psychic cost of being an artist, depicted in tensions between emotions and intellect, tradition and change, propriety and authenticity, creativity and labor. Its theme draws not from film, literature or history, but from a painting, Seurat's iconic "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Sondheim and Lapine imagined the lives of people—and a dog—in the painting, weaving a web of relationships among them and with Seurat himself. Along with the primary Dot-George affair, there is gossip, professional jealousy, flirtation, sneaking around with other people's spouses, wealthy and working folks critiquing each other, and obnoxious (but funny) American tourists. All of that is in act one. Act two jets forward 100 years to the mid 1980s with that same theme seen from a different perspective. George in the 1880s is driven by his artistic vision, unable to tear away for anyone or anything else, as he realizes in the soaring "Finishing the Hat." In the 1980s, an artist, also named George, is bereft of vision and distracted by the task of raising funds ("Putting It Together") for his costly multi-media works.

As for that slender narrative, act one is basically a love triangle between George, Dot, and George's work. Dot is drawn to George's genius and intensity, and the thought of being immortalized by being depicted in one of his paintings. However, she also wants to matter to George as a person, not only as part of his work, and he seems incapable of that. Act two is often thought to be a weak tag-on to what could otherwise be a wonderful, self-contained one act musical. It begins back on la Grande Jatte, where the people Seurat painted snidely complain that "It's Hot Up Here." They are no longer flattered by his attention but rather weary of their static poses and the endless heat of the painting's eternal summer. This clever and entertaining number provides a segue to the crux of act two, which addresses an artist's need to constantly renew their vision. Our jaded 1980s George has nothing else in which to pour his life—he must be an artist—and that requires that he find renewed inspiration and drive to "Move On." For this he is aided by his fragile grandmother, Marie—played always by the actress who plays Dot in act one—in a simple, but moving song, "Children and Art."

I agree that act one of Sunday in the Park with George is far more engaging, has more life and humor, and is more beautiful to behold than act two. Part of that stems from the fact that, in a show about the transformation of an artist's vision into works of art, we see George actively, joyfully, creating art through act one. The act one finale, "Sunday," is stunning, with the ability to cause eyes to moisten, not by any resolution of emotional discord, but by the sheer beauty of its sublime marriage of image, design and music. Nothing so powerful or so gratifying happens in act two. Still, without act two, we would not see the down side of the creative arc that is so visible in act one.

The Guthrie's mounting of the show is a joy to experience. Joe Haj has directed the work, eschewing complicated scenery for Jan Chambers' designed frame occupying the rear of the thrust, with a huge canvas draped over one side of it. On the frame and the canvas, projections (by Caite Hevner) provide ever-changing imagery, based on George's descriptions of the scenes he is painting—or rather, as he sees them in his mind, and then paints them. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James, on the other hand, are beautifully lush, bringing out the subtext of each character's place in the social milieu. Jane Cox' lighting and Elisheba Ittoop's sound complete the stunning physical production. Choreographer Christopher Windom brings vigor to the show's modest dance elements.

As for performances, Haj has made great choices in casting Randy Harrison as George and Erin Mackey as Dot/Marie. Mackey travelled from New York for last summer's South Pacific. Her Dot has the same vitality as did her Nellie Forbush, and the same crushed ambiguity when she faces unwelcome truth about the man she loves. Her clear, strong voice excels in several of the score's highlights: the opening title song, "We Do Not Belong Together," and "Move On." Harrison is known from USA Network's "Mr. Robot" and Showtime's "Queer as Folk" and was seen last year as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret. He portrays George as a pent-up, obsessive artist, passionate about his work and nothing else. His full-bodied voice delivers a stirring "Finishing the Hat" and he has a field day impersonating two dogs having a conversation with each other in "The Day Off". He and Mackey join voices in a beautifully rendered "Color and Light," his dabs of dots in different colors on his canvas matched by her dabs of powder all over her ivory-toned skin.

The rest of the cast are without fault. Especially impressive are Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary in last year's South Pacific) as the Old Lady in the park in act one and snarky art critic Blair Daniels in act two, Paul Nakauchi as George's mentor and rival artist Jules, Ann Michels as Jule's wife Yvonne, and Cat Brindisi as Celeste #1, an aggressively flirtatious shop girl who spends her Sundays at the park.

Music director and conductor Mark Hartman leads a particularly beautiful sounding thirteen-member orchestra. After the final curtain call, the orchestra plays a longer set of walk-out music than typical, and, at the performance I attended, an unusually large number of audience members stayed in place to hear every last note of Sondheim's gorgeous melodies played by such a rich-sounding ensemble.

Sunday in the Park with George is easy to love for its wonderful Sondheim score, its witty book, and insightful themes about art, commitment, and life's choices. Dot sings, in "Move On", "I chose, and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not." In "The Day Off", a servant rails to his wife about the difference between work and art: "While he creates, we scrape their plates, and dust their knickknacks, hundreds to the shelf. Work is what you do for others, Liebchen, art is what you for yourself." There is so much to dwell upon in Sondheim's lyrics.

And yet, most of the characters are hard to like. Only Dot in act one and Marie in act two convey warmth or kindness. George in act one is only brought to life by his work, not treating people very well. George in act two is gentler and more approachable, but also wrapped up in work as he tries to keep his creative impulses from slipping away. The other characters bicker, cheat and gripe. Even Jules and Yvonne's young daughter is annoying. The show is a thought piece, polished to a brilliant shine. The emotions it stirs are in admiration for the genius of its conception and execution, not for its story or message, even as the closing moments offer hope that by connecting to our past we can move into our future. With that disclaimer, this Sunday in the Park with George is a beautiful show, the work of a master in peak form, in a sterling Guthrie production.

Sunday in the Park with George continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through August 20, 2017. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets are $34.00 to $87.00. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) and Active Military - $3.00 and $6.00 discounts. Public Rush for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $25.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. Gateway tickets for eligible low income patrons, $5.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: James Lapine; Director: Joseph Haj; Music Director and Conductor: Mark Hartman; Choreographer: Christopher Windom; Set Design: Jan Chambers; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: Jane Cox; Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Copyist: Greg Theisen; Casting Consultants: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Chris A. Code; Assistant Stage Managers: Justin Hossle and Jane Heer; Assistant Director: Addie Gorlin; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Polly Bilski (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Owen Moldow (projection), Reid Rejsa (sound).

Cast: Sasha Andreev (Franz/Alex), Christian Bardin (Celeste #2/Photographer), Cat Brindisi (Celeste #1/Betty), David Darrow (Soldier/Dennis), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Nurse, Mrs., Harriet Pawling), Randy Harrison (George), Maia Hernandez (Louise *), Christine Toy Johnson (Old Lady/Blair Daniels), Benjamin Lohrberg (Soldier's Companion/Waiter), Erin Mackey (Dot/Marie), Ann Michels (Yvonne/Naomi Eisen), Justin Lee Miller (Boatman/Lee Randolph), Paul Nakauchi (Jules/Robert Greenberg), Britta Ollmann (Frieda/Elaine), T. Mychael Rambo (Mr./Charles Redmond), Natalie Tran (Louise *), Max Wojtanowicz (Louie/Billy Webster). * alternate performances


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