Theater Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Marc Wheeler on February 20, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


“Art isn’t easy,” sing the cast of players in Sunday in the Park with George; the words are most notably sung by the artist-protagonist himself — or perhaps, his creator. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Sunday won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985. It’s also the first mainstage production in a larger Sondheim Celebration being orchestrated by Pasadena Playhouse. A months-long series of classes, concerts, and productions, the festival is the first of its kind to commemorate the musical genius of the late Stephen Sondheim who in November 2021 died at the age of 91. Sunday is directed by Sarna Lapine (niece to Sunday’s book writer and original director James Lapine) who made her Broadway debut directing Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday’s recent Broadway revival. Under her helm, this full-scale Playhouse production is a gorgeous celebration of a work of art, about a work of art, that reminds us: art isn’t easy — and quality, much less legacy, doesn’t come without a cost.

Graham Phillips

Brimming with poetry, this peculiar Sondheim/Lapine musical is an ekphrastic meditation on A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a masterwork by the French post-impressionist painter, Georges Seurat. It’s also a fictionalized account of the artist himself. In Sunday, George (Graham Phillips) struggles to connect with those around him, even as he, through his art, is one of humanity’s keenest observers. Act One takes place between 1884 and 1886 over a period of Sundays on an island in the river Seine outside Paris. This is where George Seurat plants himself, sketching the cast of characters (a delightful ensemble of supporting players) who, as colorful as the dot-dot-dot of Seurat’s pointillism, wander the island on their days off. Act Two takes place a century later in an American art museum where Seurat’s great-grandson — also an artist, and also named George (Phillips again) — wrestles with the gifts and sins of his lineage.

Juliana Sloan, Armand Akbari, Jenni Barber, and Trevor James

Phillips, whom I recently reviewed in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, transforms wonderfully as the dual Georges. As Seurat, Phillips — except when voicing dogs to comedic effect — is focused, confined. His physicality is limited, and his voice, though strong and resplendent, has a sharp tonality that reflects George’s lasered attention: cold to all except his artistry. On the other hand, Seurat’s mistress and model, the aptly named Dot (a lovely Krystina Alabado), radiates with warmth. Because of Dot’s inability to read and write, much less concentrate, I almost wonder if Alabado’s characterization is too poised and refined. Her vocals, with deep attention to enunciation, shimmer with elegance. When Dot can no longer take George’s emotional distance, she takes up with a local baker (a charming Robert Knight). In the bouncy “Everybody Loves Louis,” Alabado exquisitely mines the tug-of-war of Dot’s heart with depth and transparency.

Cast of Sunday in the Park with George

This attention to detail is echoed throughout the work. Seurat was a founder of what later became described as “pointillism,” a technique wherein a painter places small, distinct dots of color side by side that, when viewed at a distance, create an emergent third color (e.g. red and blue creating a beauty of violet solely reliant on the viewer). When the wife of a fellow artist (a radiant Emily Tyra as “Yvonne;” a headstrong Michael Manuel as “Jules”) tells Dot that Seurat “always seems so oblivious to everyone. Jules says that is what is wrong with his painting. Too obsessive. You have to have a life! Don’t you agree?” it becomes clear to the audience (if not to Yvonne and Dot) that over a century later Seurat’s legacy stands strong, but does “everybody love … Jules?” Such themes and variations on legacy and creation — warring, sadly, with human connection — get teased, if not fully apart, over Sunday’s mirroring acts.

Emily Tyra and Michael Manuel

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has created an elegant tapestry upon which Sunday’s imagery gets displayed, including Clint Ramos’s stylish period costumes, Tal Yarden’s beautiful projections of Seurats’ evolving works, and Alison Solomon’s choreographed tableau. Ken Billington‘s intricate lighting and Danny Erdberg & Ursula Kwong-Brown’s sound design make for a spectacular “Chromolume” electronic sculpture exhibit in Act Two. Layered behind a translucent scrim is music director Andy Einhorn and his brilliant orchestra. By placing the musicians on stage, instead of in the pit, Lapine provides a constant reminder of the dot-dot-dots necessary for creating a whole bigger than the sum of Sunday’s parts.

Deborah Lew, Armand Akbari, Trevor James, Jason Michael Snow, and Graham Phillips

While this musical did win the Pulitzer, it lost multiple Tony Awards to La Cage aux Folles, a fabulous, frilly, crowd-pleasing musical by Harvey Fierstein featuring Jerry Herman’s (self-described) “simple, hummable” showtunes. And yet, instant pleasers aren’t always the works to which we return to pore over with fine-toothed combs. Sunday is a show that, for me, has aged like fine wine. My first experience, years back, left me cold. And yet the closer I’ve examined its text, music, and history, my appreciation for it — and Sondheim himself — has, by leaps and bounds, grown. It’s an intimate, deeply personal work full of signature Sondheim teachings. Happily, this luminous production makes a first or returning visit to the piece well worth your while. Sunday in the Park with George, alongside Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and (upcoming at Pasadena Playhouse) A Little Night Music, have solidified — among his other acclaimed musicals — Sondheim’s enduring legacy. In the spirit of Georges Seurat, I must thank him for whatever they may have cost him.

Krystina Alabado and Graham Phillips

photos by Jeff Lorch

Alexandra Melrose and Jimmy Smagula

Sunday in the Park with George
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
ends on March 19, 2023
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

Liz Larsen and Graham Phillips

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