In the two plus years since their inception, New Stage Collective in Cincinnati has garnered much praise for their impressive productions of musicals such as Merrily We Roll Along, The Last Five Years, and Side Show, along with mountings of some interesting plays. This theater company consists mostly of college and high school students, along with a few slightly more senior performers. Continuing their mission of staging challenging works, New Stage Collective’s current show is Sunday in the Park with George. Few musicals are more demanding than this Sondheim/Lapine work from 1984. It is such a tough show to put on that this marks the Cincinnati debut of the piece, a “mere” 21 years after it opened on Broadway. The New Stage production features two excellent performers in the lead roles, an intriguing physical design, and a strong vision from its director.
Sunday in the Park with George is a fictionalized story based on the work of pointillist painter George Seurat and his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” In act one, we see the tedious work and life of the painter and his strained relationship with his mistress Dot. The people out strolling in the park on Sundays comment on the odd artist and the world of 1884 Paris, and become figures in the painting as Seurat sketches them. Act two mostly centers on a modern day artist named George, possibly the great grandson of Seraut. His grandmother Marie and the ghost of Dot assist him in his struggle to find inspiration for new works. This highly distinctive show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but lost out to La Cage aux Folles for the 1984 Best Musical Tony Award.
The book by James Lapine covers a lot of ground. Engaging character relationships are built and explored, historical events are connected to social situations of the period, and humankind’s fervent drive for acceptance (in art and in life) is made clear in both time periods. It is quite amazing that Lapine was able to pull such a fascinating yet human story from Seraut’s paintings. While the material not centered on George, Dot, or Marie is less focused, it is nevertheless useful in defining the worlds in which those characters exist and also propel the story along.
The score for Sunday in the Park with George is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most extensive in integration of song and dialogue. His music contains several beautiful sweeping melodies, as well as his trademark complex (yet still very musical) motifs. His lyrics are at their usual genius level, with an efficiency and descriptive ability provided by few other wordsmiths. The opening title song offers Dot’s frustration at being a model and lover of such an odd artist. In “Color and Light,” Sondheim is able to deftly mimic the strokes of a painters brush in music. The gorgeous “Sunday” features a moving choral arrangement and the entire song builds to an emotional climax in music (and usually in staging too). “It’s Hot Up Here” is a splendidly amusing song sung by the characters trapped within the painting expressing their frustration as to how they were rendered by the artist. “Putting It Together” has become a commonly used song about pulling the various aspects of a show or artistic endeavor together. However, within the context of the show, and with the added dialogue, it is a sarcastic and biting commentary on the extra sacrifices that are required of modern artists. The driving and passionate “Move On” is a sheer musical theater delight. Almost all of the songs offer much to admire, and the score is a wonderful complement to the unique book.
New Stage Collective has assembled some very talented performers for this production. The show, however, rests significantly on the shoulders of two actors. As George Seraut (and modern George), Cincinnati newcomer Charlie Clark sings wonderfully, but it is his acting that is most impressive. Mr. Clark captures the obsessed, driven nature of the eccentric genius perfectly. Kera Halbersleben likewise sings with confident power and fine technique. She conveys the transformation of Dot from hopeful naiveté and desperation for approval to a stronger, more self-assured woman. Ms. Halbersleben also convincingly portrays the elderly Marie, a job not easily accomplished by someone of her young age. Both of these lead performers handle the soaring melodies and the often fast paced lyrics of Sondheim’s songs with aplomb. The ensemble members all provide realistic and suitable characterizations and first-rate vocals (on display especially in “Sunday”). The seven piece orchestra sounds terrific, and is led by musical director Michael P. Hamilton.
Director Alan Patrick Kenny brings a clear and appropriate vision to the show. The feelings and emotions of the characters are richly defined, and the dramatic high points of the piece are fully realized. Mr. Kenny achieves a proper balance of humor, tension, pathos, and artistic relevance for the piece as well. The only drawback to his direction is an inconsistency of setting in act two. In most productions, these scenes take place in 1984, a century after the first act. Marie is almost a hundred years old. The costumes of the characters in this staging suggest this time period. However, Mr. Kenny has the characters using current cell phones, and the “modern art” shown through computer graphics for the chromolume is pure 2005. This contradiction between Marie’s allowable age and the inclusion of modern technology as props is this production‘s only significant weaknesses.
This production is especially noteworthy as well for its use of state-of-the-art technology for scenic design. Instead of the painted cardboard cut-outs and backdrops so prominent in many productions of this show, projected computer graphics are used. These images of Seraut’s sketches and paintings are projected onto eight large white sheets that are hung and moved horizontally around the stage. Pete Thornbury (who is also credited with the lighting) and Director Kenny created this design concept, which allows for flexibility and is a (hopefully) cheaper alternative to creating set pieces. This approach works generally well, except that the moving of the sheets produces a noisy squeak that is somewhat distracting. The projections are also put to good use in providing multiple “Georges” for “Putting It Together”. The costumes by Lori Ritchie are quite lovely, and the modern chromolume design (though not apt for 1984) by cast member Andrew Lazarow is in the right “modern art” vein.
Also of special interest is the fact that this production is being staged in the black box theater of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Cincinnati. Having this particular musical staged in an art museum seems fully appropriate given the subject matter.
The staging of Sunday in the Park with George is a considerable enterprise for any theater company. Sondheim and Lapine’s show is an intricate and challenging one, but Cincinnati’s young New Stage Collective is up to the task and provides an entertaining and thought-provoking production. The talented cast, unique design, and worthwhile direction all help to make this Cincinnati premiere one to catch. Sunday in the Park with George is presented at the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art until August 6, 2005.