Sunday In the Park With George
Sunday in the Park with George has not received a great deal of attention in Los Angeles. Indeed, West Coast Ensemble's 2003 production was the show's Los Angeles premiere. Now, Reprise! takes a shot at the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical about the creative process and the sacrifices it demands. And while there is much to recommend in this production, its flaws ultimately leave one thinking that Los Angeles is overdue for a full scale, big theatre production of this masterpiece.
Under Jason Alexander's direction, the musical is basically a two-character play focussing solely on painter George and his model and lover Dot. Everyone else is, more or less, scenery. Manoel Felciano's take on George is that of a fairly decent soul. He is definitely obsessed by his work, but there's an element of self-awareness to it. He knows that he is frequently overlooking Dot's needs, and his momentary gestures toward genuine attentiveness belie his harsh dismissiveness. And when he sings "Finishing the Hat," after Dot has left him for someone with more warmth, he seems to question whether he made the right decision. His "Look, I made a hat" sounds as though he's trying to convince himself that his artistic product was worth the personal price.
Kelli O'Hara's Dot is a bit flighty, but she certainly isn't someone easily ignored. She's a very strong character who will not allow herself to be bullied by George, and she goes after what she needs when he won't give it to her. When Dot returns in the second act as a spiritual guide for George's descendant, O'Hara gives us a complete Dot. Where there had been spunk and innocence, there is now a solid, grounded presence. This Dot, the Dot who owes a great deal of her evolution to the lessons she learned from George, is a formidable woman - and one who could have been a match for him if their timelines had better coincided.
Musically, Felciano and O'Hara are solid, although O'Hara sometimes misses a beat or hits a wrong note in the complex Sondheim score. To the extent Reprise! is acknowledging its roots as a "Broadway's Best in Concert" series, there's sufficient attention paid to putting the music across. Conductor Gerald Sternbach presides over an eleven-piece orchestra using Michael Starobin's original orchestrations. The company of seventeen achieves full, beautiful harmonies. The act one closer, "Sunday," builds perfectly as George arranges everyone on stage into the painting we know he's been aiming for since the beginning of the piece, and it is everything that is right with this musical.
It is also, paradoxically, everything that is wrong with this production. For a show that depends so strongly on the visual elements, the production falls flat on this count - and it isn't because Reprise! didn't have enough money to do it right. The elements are all there, but the choices go very, very wrong. For starters, Reprise! is working with the wrong palette. The first act culminates in the live recreation of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," with the image of the finished work dropping in front of the cast. But the actors are all dressed in shades of white, tan, and light grey. The picture they've created is colorless. When the actual painting drops in (a little too early), every eye is drawn to the painting - it is bursting with color; the staging is drab. It's shockingly out of place for this show; there is much talk about George painting with "Color and Light" - we should see that actually come together. And the irony is that Reprise! actually has the colored costumes. Over the intermission, the actors do a quick costume change and retake their poses in the painting in full color. Had they managed the costume change sometime in the first act, "Sunday" could have been as visually glorious as it was musically.
The colored costumes themselves are a bit odd; in an obvious nod to Seurat's pointillist style, there are dots of color in the clothing. While some items manage to pull this off, others have dots that are too big and too few - a black hat with large pieces of blue and red confetti on it isn't pointillist; it's distracting.
Lighting is also misused in the piece. When George sings "Color and Light," he's placed behind a large scrim, working on his painting. Rather than leave this to the imagination, many dots of colored light are projected on the scrim. It's nonsensical - in the first place, the audience understands the concept of painting with colored light and needn't be shown it; in the second, all that is projected is a bunch of colored dots; we aren't shown the dots in any way that demonstrates what George is actually doing with them.
Comment must also be made about the show's second act, which comes off as more of an extended epilogue than anything else. We see George's great-grandson, a young artist also named George, stuck in an artistic rut. (His "Chromolume #7," a light-show tribute to Seurat, would've been a much better place for the colored dots of the first act.) Felciano doesn't put much characterization into second-act George. This George is just flat-out unhappy; there isn't even any charm to his "Putting it Together." O'Hara doubles here as George's grandmother Marie, and while her thin, reedy voice might be true to the character, it doesn't do the lovely "Children and Art" any favors.
Sunday in the Park with George is one of Reprise!'s most ambitious efforts to date, and it hits the right notes more often than it doesn't. But this production is just good enough to make us really want a brilliant one.
Sunday in the Park with George runs through February 11, 2007 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. For tickets and information, see www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best - Jim Gardia, Producing Director - presents Sunday in the Park with George. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine. Scenic Design Bradley Kaye; Costume Design Bethany Jane Bohatila, Heather Carleton; Lighting Design Jason H. Thompson; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Orchestrations by Michael Starobin; Associate Music Director Michael Farrell; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Brian Staubach; Casting Director Michael Donovan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Press Representative David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Director of Development Christine Bernardi; Director of Marketing and Communications Kelly Estrella; General Manager Danny Feldman. Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Directed by Jason Alexander.
Photo by Michael Lamont