Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Sunday in the Park with George and I Am My Own Wife

Kristine Fraelich and Jeffrey Coon
Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's bold musical about art and artists, has gotten a careful and loving production at the Arden Theatre. Sometimes it seems a little too carefully done, as if director Terrence J. Nolen and his crew are afraid to push too hard, fearful that the show might crumble. Yet ultimately the production succeeds, and its two disparate halves seem more of a unified whole than before.

Sunday tells of the creative process through a fictional story about Georges Seurat, the nineteenth century French painter, as he creates his masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Act one shows Seurat (Jeffrey Coon) battling critics, fellow artists, and even his lover and muse Dot (Kristine Fraelich) as he pursues his unique vision. "I am trying to get through to something new," Seurat declares, "something that is my own." Act two flashes forward a century to show George, an American descendent of Seurat (again played by Coon), who creates electronic media installations. George gets all the acclaim his great-grandfather lacked, but he must grapple with pushy would-be benefactors who make him question his purpose. In the end, it's his elderly grandmother (played by Fraelich) who helps him to make a breakthrough. And Dot's words give him the guidance he needs: "Anything you do, / Let it come from you / Then it will be new."

More than a quarter century after its premiere, Sondheim's score continues to astonish, both as a whole and in individual moments. There's "Color and Light," with its staccato notes applied like dabs of paint, replicating Seurat's pointillist painting technique in musical form. There's the title number, with dissonant chords that evoke the rough drafts Seurat makes as he sketches Dot. There's the relentless, choppy rhythms of "Putting It Together," followed nearly immediately by the delicate "Children and Art," providing two contrasting visions of the how and why art is made. And there's the gorgeous and majestic choral number "Sunday," which closes each act and serves as a summation of all of Seurat's themes. The offstage orchestra sounds excellent performing Michael Starobin's original orchestrations under Eric Ebbenga's baton.

Lapine's book for Sunday has often been criticized for its unbalanced structure; the modern George's travails never seem as significant as Seurat's, and act two can sometimes seem just an excuse to make some jokes about the modern art world. What's interesting about Nolen's production is that the balance is somewhat reversed. The intricate and layered first act is still rewarding, but the pace seems sometimes too slow and deliberate, losing a bit of its urgency. It's carefully done, but sometimes too relaxed to be involving. In contrast, act two is, in a word, dazzling. That's largely thanks to the video design of Jorge Cousineau, which surpasses even the sumptuous work he's done in the past on shows like Grey Gardens and James and the Giant Peach. In "Chromolume No. 7," the individual dots in Seurat's painting explode before our eyes one by one, enveloping the audience in a dizzying, stunning display. It's an effect that unites the themes of both acts, making the show more unified.

Later, in "Putting It Together," George entertains a roomful of donors by being in six places at one time, thanks to sliding panels that contain projections of actor Coon. The images of George carry on conversations with the donors, each donor thinking he's getting George's full attention; meanwhile the real George tells the audience what he really thinks. It's a marvelous and inventive illustration of Sondheim's theme.

Nolen gets fine performances out of his supporting cast, especially in the meaty first act, which imagines back stories for the characters in Seurat's painting. Notably, there's Scott Greer as a fellow artist, Liz Filios and Caroline Dooner as a pair of charming shopgirls, and Walter Charles and Sherri L. Edelen as American tourists. Maureen Torsney-Weir is outstanding as Seurat's mother; her chemistry with Coon is touching.

It's a shame that the chemistry between the two leads is lacking. In Lapine's script, George is supposed to be aloof, more concerned with his art than with people, but in Coon's portrayal, even art isn't enough. When he sings of the joy of creation in "Finishing the Hat," Coon is so intense that he doesn't even seem pleased that the hat has been finished. Dot sings that Georges shows "so much love in his work," but in Coon's portrayal, it seems like it's all work, no love. Dot is supposed to be the lovable half of the pair, but despite her frequent smiles, Fraelich remains hard to warm up to. Their singing voices are beautiful (especially Coon's), but they sometimes rely on some vocal tics that are too reminiscent of the actors who originated their roles (especially Fraelich, who replicates Bernadette Peters' tremulous vibrato).

Sunday in the Park with George has always succeeded more in the lessons it imparts than in the story it tells. But it imparts those lessons beautifully, courtesy of some of Sondheim's most profound and moving lyrics. And Cousineau's effects not only illustrate the play but revitalize it, giving it more unity and resonance. Not all of the elements here work, but once they've finished putting it together, the cumulative power of Nolen's production is inescapable.

I can't say that I loved everything about this version of Sunday in the Park with George, but I'm awfully glad I saw it. You will be too.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through July 4, 2010, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Sunday in the Park with George won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, and Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife won the honor in 2004. There's little similarity between the two works; instead of employing fifteen actors like Sunday does, I Am My Own Wife uses just one actor who plays thirty-five roles. It's an acting showcase and in Amaryllis Theatre Company's production, Charlie DelMarcelle fills the stage with a performance that is both restrained and mesmerizing. Yet it's the story, as told by Wright in a straightforward and gripping way, that makes this show so intriguing.

I Am My Own Wife tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who, as Wright puts it in the play's final moments, "navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the world has ever known—the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels." Charlotte was forced into the Hitler Youth as a teenager and killed her abusive father when she was fifteen as revenge for the cruel treatment the father inflicted on his family. Charlotte went on to found a museum preserving antiques from the late nineteenth century, and to work to preserve the gay subculture that was squashed when the Communists took over East Germany. Playwright Wright—who makes himself a character in his own play—flies to Germany to interview Charlotte; he views her survival as inspirational. Yet as he learns more about Charlotte's life —both from the interviews and from his own research—he learns that she is not the heroine she seems to be. Wright learns that Charlotte may have exaggerated the details of her life, and that she worked as an informant for the Communist secret police. Wright struggles to determine what to believe, even as Charlotte states her case: "Never forget that you're living in the lion's den. Sometimes, you must howl with the wolves."

Wright's attitude on Charlotte may end on a note of uncertainty, but there's nothing uncertain about director Josette Todaro's tight, disciplined production. The set design (by Meghan Jones) looks simple, but like Charlotte herself, it ends up revealing a lot. DelMarcelle moves swiftly from character to character, making each transition with only a few subtle gestures and a change of accent. His portrayal of Charlotte is marvelous—there's nothing caricatured about the way he depicts her, just a careful German accent and a precise manner. His Charlotte is, above all, a lady—which is the way she thought of herself, no matter what indignity she was went through (or caused).

It's a fascinating story, told with a minimum of fuss on a tiny stage. In its own understated way, I Am My Own Wife makes Charlotte's tale a riveting one.

I Am My Own Wife runs through June 13, 2010, and is presented by Amaryllis Theatre Company at The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $10 (with discounts available for groups) and are available by calling 877-260-1126 or online at .

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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