Sunday in the Park with George
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)
|John Bambery as George|
As each word is announced by the artist whose science of painting is guided by these exacting principles, the members of his most famous composition move into place, aided by his adjustments as needed to get just the right placement of head, hem, or parasol. And then when he finally he says, “Harmony,” Stephen Sondheim’s glorious “Sunday” sounds forth as a magnetic set of waves that draws us quietly toward an eventual climax of beautifully blended voices in a suddenly arresting volume,
“People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday.”
|The Cast of Sunday in the Park with George|
For me, no matter how many times I see this incredibly moving sequence, I cannot hold back the tears streaming down my cheek. The creation of art that occurs in front of our eyes in Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) Sunday in the Park with George is unmatched in any other play or musical (in my opinion). Under the inspired direction of Bill English where loving strokes of genius abound, the current, visually awakening production at San Francisco Playhouse does not disappoint as George Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, becomes three-dimensional reality in each act’s emotional and harmonious conclusion.
George-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was a post-Impressionist painter, famous today as the creator of the pointillist technique of painting where hundreds of thousands of multi-colored dots blend at a distance into a picture full of rich hues, light, and shadows. During his too-short lifetime, he was largely shunned by the established art community and never had a major exhibit.
The near-maniacal approach to his dotted painting, the adherence to a non-stop work ethic that precluded much time away from his sketchbook or canvas, and the obsession for perfection that meant minute attention to every detail of a model’s being are all magnificently captured in the music and lyrics by Sondheim in a song like “Color and Light.” As George stabs his brush as if piercing the canvas with a sharp tool, he sings in rapid progression, “More red, a little more red, blue, blue, blue, blue ... There’s only color and light, yellow and white.”
|John Bambery & Nanci Zoppi|
John Bambery captures George’s fanatically determined approach to art and life as he both sketches on the shores of the river or as he works from a ladder on the massive canvas in his darkened studio. Taking strong jabs on an imaginary canvas between him and us as audience, he sings with a voice crisp, clear, and convincing of his character’s compulsive nature. He clips off the Sondheim rush of lyrics with ease and yet with purpose, digging into the notes zeal and intensity with a voice that can both belt and whisper with the same rich array of tones.
When George is sketching on a Sunday in the park amongst a bevy of lovers, soldiers, strollers, and even his mother and her nurse that will eventually make it onto his completed canvas, he at one point becomes two lazing dogs (Spot and Fifi) who yap and yep, ruff and gruff together about their Sunday adventures and woes. John Bambery delights us with his puppy antics and his duo ventures into falsetto squeaks and basso wallows.
Later in his studio, his intensity of voice and manner only increase with wonderful vocal gymnastics that speak of satisfied victory as he delivers “Finishing the Hat” (“Look, I made a hat ... where there never was a hat”). Continuously, Mr. Bambery is a George Seurat that we can believe he is actually that now-icon of the art world who largely ignored the rest of his life in order to create art unlike any that had ever been created before.
|John Bambery & Nanci Zoppi|
And in doing so, George loses Dot, the woman who adores him even as she dislikes the hours of modeling in the hot sun in her black, bustle dress. Nanci Zoppi brings vast amounts of fun and frustration into the role of Dot as she does all she can to turn George’s attention – at least for a few moments – from his brushes to look and be with her. With time at the Follies being more to her liking than another night watching George try to get the right shade of black out of red, yellow, and blue, Dot weighs sticking with George or taking up with the more boring, but also much more affectionate and attending Louis the baker (a jolly, twinkle-toed Anthony Rollins-Mullens).
While in songs (like her opening “Sunday in the Park with George”) Ms. Zoppi rattles off the rapid lyrics without one word being missed by us as audience, she sometimes veers vocally into too much nasal qualities or syllables that waver into areas not as attractive as desired. The result is that her Dot is wonderfully acted (as in a parallel sequence of applying in poking motions her powder puff at the mirror as George punches his paint brush in “Color and Light”), but she is not consistently able to sell completely some of her big numbers – although she comes close -- like “We Do Not Belong Together” or the second act’s climatic “Move On.”
Where Nanci Zoppi does excel in particular is in the second act when she becomes an old lady in wheelchair who is supposedly the daughter that Dot and George have before Dot leaves George. In this role, her astute acting abilities are matched by a voice that fits perfectly as an aging grandmother singing the touching “Children and Art.”
|John Barbery as the Modern-Day George|
In this second act, the elderly Marie tells her mother, Dot -- now embedded behind her on the wall, forever in the famed, Seurat picture -- of her grandson, also an experimenting, controversial artist named George. That second George’s challenges as an artist who must also worry about the business matters of pleasing money-generous patrons and foundations is the focus of Act Two, with John Bamberry once again being impressive in every regard as the great-grandson of the earlier George. He and the entire company are especially exceptional – particularly because of Director Bill English’s astute choices – in “Putting It Together,” where the business of making art becomes all too real as a pressing pack of patrons want to be in-your-face close to the artist they support while he would himself rather be anywhere else but in their midst.
The parallels between the two Georges’ mannerisms and talents, their doubting critics, and their lost loves are the crowning touches in James Lapine’s book that combine with Stephen Sondheim’s astounding music and clever-beyond-words lyrics to make the musical such a favorite among many self-declared fanatics of the modern musical (including yours truly). Like in many productions prior of Sunday in the Park, the Creative Team of San Francisco Playhouse also insures that the musical is one as visually as remarkable as it is musically and story-wise. Bill English not only directs but has created a simple but effective set design the allows the projections and videos designed by Theodore J.H. Hulsker to reign supreme in not only re-creating elements of the famed painting, but also of the artist’s studio, the actual park and river, and of the modern George’s controversial Chromlolume #7.
Michael Oesch has created his own artistic wonders in a lighting design that turns a wooden stage into a lush lawn of green grass, gently dappled in sunlight – one of many beautiful touches where the light so important to George Suerat is able to take a starring role in this production.
The costumes of Abra Berman bring the Seurat painting into reality as its late nineteenth-century characters move off the canvas onto the stage. At the same time, she adds much humor to the early 1980s where patrons at modern George’s art exhibit are clearly dressed to be on full exhibition themselves.
|John Barbery & Maureen McVerry|
Besides Mr. Bambery and Ms. Zoppi, seventeen other actors fill the staged canvas of the first act and the modern art show of the second, ably playing characters often full of delightful quirk, spunk, and peculiarity. Maureen McVerry is a firm-minded, Old Lady on the lake’s shore who is actually George’s mother, combining with him in “Beautiful” with a voice that bemoans all the changes around her – one with touches of sung melancholy, desperation, and urgency – as she finally urges George to capture the scene of life around her before it (and perhaps she) fades away.
Ryan Drummond is a rather pompous, fellow artist named Jules who, along with his wife Yvonne (Abby Haug), sings among despairingly “ah’s” and “oh my’s” in “No Life” concerning how his friend George’s room-filling painting has “no presence.” But Jules is also flirty in the park, sneaking off behind the bushes with the Old Lady’s feisty Nurse (Michelle Drexler).
On the shaded shore of the lake, among others, are also a rough-edged Boatman (Xander Ritchey) whose gruff singing voice challenges George’s artistic perception in “The Day Off;” a smoothly crooning and courting Soldier 1 (William Giammona) and his silent, signing pal Soldier 2 (Elliott Hanson); and their new-found girlfriends who reel them in while fishing at the shore, Celeste 1 (Emily Radosevich) and Celeste 2 (Corrie Farbstein). All of these and the rest of the cast double in other, modern-day roles once the Act Two scene shifts to the second George’s exhibition.
While there a few times when the pace and action of the production seems to slow in pauses between scenes, there is no quarrel that in total-cast numbers like “The Day Off,” “It’s Hot Up Here,” and the aforementioned “Putting It Together,” Director English and Choreographer Kimberly Richards know how to keep our interest and tickle us a bit with humorous interactions, complaints, and unsaid thoughts made public. But in the end, it is the combination of a fine orchestra’s music (under the direction of keyboardist, Dave Dobrusky) and the strongly sung harmonies of the Chorus as a whole in those two renditions of “Sunday” that will be most relished by audience in the days following, just as been the case of all past productions of Sunday in the Park with George.
In its annual, summer, musical gift to the Bay Area, with this Sunday in the Park with George San Francisco Playhouse leaves us with warm feelings and overall happy memories of a sunny afternoon stroll while also reminding us that there is no more sublime subject for a staged work of art than one about the creation of art and the artist behind it who sacrifices all to bring that work to life.
Rating: 4 E
Sunday in the Park with George continues through September 8, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Ken Levin.