Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Sunday in the Park with George
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

John Bambery
Photo by Ken Levin
It took me a longer than normal time to fall in love with the work of Stephen Sondheim. Now that I have, I struggle to recall why I held back so long. If I were to compile a Top 10, I can't imagine Company not being near the top. Yet Sunday in the Park with George still somehow failed to draw me in. I'd only seen the filmed version of the Mandy Patinkin-Bernadette Peters production and enjoyed it, but didn't get it. But after seeing the wondrous production that opened Wednesday at San Francisco Playhouse, my conversion is complete.

I owe this in great part to Bill English's directorial and design skills. He's given us a physical environment that is almost spare: a proscenium-wide scrim upstage on which are projected images of the works of Georges Seurat and occasionally his studio or a gallery, augmented by a few props and pieces of furniture, and flats representing the trees on the Island of La Grande Jatte, from Seurat's most famous work. It feels open, but filled with light and color—and possibilities. It is literally at one point a blank canvas. Likewise, the emotional space he has created onstage invites the audience to open up, to let down our guard and experience what Sondheim and bookwriter Lapine (and Seurat) have to say about art and human connection. He is more than ably supported (with one exception) in this by the talents of his orchestra, cast, and technical and creative crew.

Sunday in the Park with George concerns French pointillist painter George as he works on "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in 1884, and, in act two, his great-grandson, also named George, also an artist, but working in more conceptual media in New York of the 1980s. In act one George is joined by Dot, his long-time mistress and model, who is growing frustrated in their relationship.

As George and Dot, John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi inhabit that sparsely populated land of singers who can bring genuine passion to both their acting and singing. Lots of singers can hit the notes, not many can do it in a way that reveals profound emotional depth. Bambery's George deftly walks a line between wanting to be loved and wanting to be left alone—a subject Sondheim has been known to explore before. He shows us both a laser focus on his work (especially in "Finishing the Hat") and commitment to artistic integrity, but also a desire for critical acclaim and public recognition.

Like the work of Sondheim, I was ever-so-slightly slow to warm to Nanci Zoppi's Dot. Her voice has a kind of vaguely nasal resonance (but that isn't a head voice) that puts one in mind of Bernadette Peters, who originated the role. I say ever-so-slightly because it only took about 12 bars for me to lose those blues and be won over. Yes, I still heard echoes of Bernadette, but as the evening went on, Zoppi's lovely all-her-own voice put that thought further and further in the back of my mind. By the time she got to "Move On," I was putty in her hands. Her Dot sings with a sense of vulnerability that is built upon a foundation of experience and hard-learned lessons.

The rest of the cast provide excellent support of the two leads. Will Giammona plays a surprisingly gentle Soldier, and Ryan Drummond surprised me as both Jules (George's mentor/rival) and Bob, a museum director, bringing a light comic touch to a couple of characters who are just stuffy enough to not be ponderous. Maureen McVerry's Old Lady is marvelously imperious and delightfully maternal.

The six-piece orchestra does stellar work with Sondheim's score: they are tight, and pepper us with sharp accents and bold playing. Props, lighting, and sound design all come together quite beautifully, as well.

The only creative failure is Abra Berman's costumes. In act one, all that was required was to recreate the outfits captured in the painting, and Berman accomplishes that skillfully enough. But the costumes in act two seem less like an arty crowd in New York circa 1984, and more like what people in some middle American suburb might grab at their local Ross store to wear to disco night on a cruise ship.

The talents and expertise of cast, crew, and director are in service of a brilliant book and score by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Many observers see in Sunday in the Park with George an examination of the challenges facing artists: the difficulties of craft, the vagaries of fashion, feeling misunderstood or underappreciated—but just as George says about his pointillist technique, in which millions of individual dots of color (Seurat used only 11 different hues) create a sense luminance and shape, "the eye mixes the colors," this show has something to say about how we experience not just a pointillist painting, but our entire world. We connect, and we blend—but ultimately we are alone, one dot among billions, who can—together—make something much bigger than ourselves, and even more beautiful.

But "art isn't easy," as Sondheim tells us in the show's best-known song, "Putting It Together." He's right. But with this luminous production, San Francisco Playhouse sure makes it look that way.

Sunday in the Park with George, through September 8, 2018, at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays at 7:00pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $25-$125, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

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