Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Sunday in the Park with George
Sunday in the Park with George is a fictionalized story based on the work of real-life pointillist painter Georges Seurat and his masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." In act one, the audience is introduced to the work and life of the painter and the 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 primarily centers on a "modern-day" artist named George, possibly the great-grandson of Seurat. 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 Seurat's paintings. While the material not centered on George, Dot, or Marie is less intriguing, it is nevertheless useful in defining the worlds in which those characters exist and also propels the story along.
The score 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 painter's brush in music. The gorgeous "Sunday" features a moving choral arrangement and the entire song builds to an emotional climax in music. "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.
CCM Director / Choreographer Vincent DeGeorge brings a level of vitality and exuberance to the production that is not often associated with this show. The humor in the material is fully realized, and the emotions of the characters are richly defined. There are a number of inventive directorial choices that are home runs as well, including having two actors portray the dogs during "The Day Off" instead of George simply voicing them. Julie Spangler, an underappreciated gem in CCM faculty, serves as musical director and splendidly leads a three-piece pit ensemble on piano, along with harpist Madeline Arney and Kyle Lamb on percussion.
CCM seems to be a never-ceasing wellspring of talent, and the performers for this show are no exception. As 19th century painter George, Christian Feliciano supplies an intensity which captures the singular focus of the artist. Feliciano portrays his 1980s counterpart with the appropriate frustration and tenderheartedness for the role, and he sings beautifully. Even better is Britta Rae as Dot and Marie. Rae's performance might be the best I've witnessed in the last decade by a college student. Her nuanced and varied take on the roles, ability to convey vulnerability, acting through non-verbals, and terrific singing throughout (she might have performed the whole show without any head voice) is a treat to witness.
Each member of the ensemble gets a chance to shine, and the score is impeccably sung throughout. Worthy of special mention are: Sarah Pansing, who brings a piercing focus as the Old Lady and provides noteworthy singing of "Beautiful"; Sasha Spitz, a sassy Yvonne and Betty, who garners lots of laughs with over-the-top delivery and facial expressions; and Delaney Benson and Haley Root as Celeste #1 and Celeste #2.
This black box production is fairly simple in design, with two levels connected by a spiral staircase, bordered with white strips on which projections are displayed, as provided by Jason Bowden. The Act 1 costumes by Iris Harmon are attractive, and all in shades of white, off-white and tan. For the 1980s section, the outfits are accurate to the time period. The lighting by Alaina Pizzoferato includes subtle yet effective color changes to match the paint colors George mentions while working in his studio, and employs other well-suited effects (including those for instances of flash photography within the action).
The staging of Sunday in the Park with George is a considerable enterprise, and mounting it in a black box seems like it would be even more challenging. Yet this intimate and stripped-down production allows the audience to focus on the unique story, fantastic score, and magnificent performances to be seen and heard at CCM. Excellent direction and musical direction certainly help, as well, in making this one of the must-see productions of the season.
Sunday in the Park with George runs through April 10, 2021, at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Cohen Family Studio Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati, OH 45221. For tickets and information, call (513) 556-4183 or visit ccmonstage.universitytickets.com.