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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

Sunday In the Park With George
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

Also see Richard's reviews of It's a Wonderful Life and My Three Angels

Stephen Sondheim is known among puzzle connoisseurs as a brilliant and devious constructor of cryptic crosswords, so it should not be surprising that so many critics and theatergoers have approached Sunday In the Park With George as an intellectual challenge. How shall we make sense of a plot in which the storyline seems complete at the end of act one, but which goes on—courtesy of a vast jump in time—to raise in a rather abrupt second act a series of issues about the politics of art that seem at best tangential to the first act's celebration of creativity and the power of artistic vision to transform the "real" into the beautiful?

The urgency of this challenge is reflected in the presence of an essay in the program for this production, putting forward the defense that the second act is logically connected with the first because it resolves the failure of George Seurat (as interpreted by Sondheim) to "grow as a person, to resolve the great conflict of his life, to connect to other people." Other observers have disagreed, but by simply in engaging in the argument they have been equally guilty, I suggest, of missing the point.

Perhaps it is because Sondheim's music is not sentimental, or because his lyrics are often more about the play of language than about recognizably human feelings—though at their very best they combine the two, as great poetry always does. Perhaps it is because the core values of his scripts and the essences of his characters are often, if not always complex, demanding, and—like life—messy. One way or another, criticism of his work has too often been led far afield from the qualities that make it theatrically successful.

Of his major musicals, only A Little Night Music provides a clearer summary of these qualities than Sunday, and that is at least partly because of its allusions to other works. What is on offer in both instances is an aesthetic, not intellectual, experience, in which music, language, design and movement are welded together by the willing participation of the audience into a delightful whole, much as Seurat's dots of color are welded by the willing eye not just into color and form, but into an experience that has—to judge from the enduring popularity of the painting—something well beyond intellectual significance.

The question of whether there is intellectual sense to be made of the structure of this show, in other words, is relevant only insofar as any perception of awkwardness interferes with the audience's ability to respond to the words and the music. The job of Sunday In the Park With George, in short, like the job of great painting, is not to make sense, but to be, in the oldest and truest sense of the word, a beautiful experience.

The Rep's production, directed with sure-handed grace by Rob Ruggiero, features first-rate performances from a cast which includes a number of familiar faces, including some of St. Louis's most talented resident actors and some who have their roots here and have gone on to achieve success elsewhere. Ron Bohmer, for example, who displays an extraordinarily rich voice as George, is a graduate of the Webster University Conservatory, which shares space with the Rep. Local favorites Kari Ely, Whit Reichert and Zoe Vonder Haar give splendid performances.

The orchestra, directed by F. Wade Russo, gives an adroit reading of some tricky music, and the design team of Adrian W. Jones (sets), Alejo Vietti (costumes) and John Lasiter (lighting) has created an environment within which all of the elements of Sondheim's imagination and the craft of the performers fuse into a delightful—and genuinely beautiful—evening of theater.

Sunday In the Park With George. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Through January 29 on the Browning Mainstage at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information, call (314)968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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