After seeing the off-Broadway premiere of Sunday in the Park with George in July 1983, composer Leonard Bernstein sent a note to Stephen Sondheim calling the show “brilliant, deeply conceived, canny, magisterial… Bravo.” Critics and audiences didn’t immediately agree, and despite 10 Tony award nominations, it won only two: Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design.
Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), however, were redeemed when the show went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1984 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.
Sunday in the Park with George, like most Sondheim musicals, isn’t “hummable,” as one critic commented; it challenges the singers and audience alike. But like all Sondheim musicals, it’s intelligent, playful and witty.
Under the direction of Ryan Mooney, this United Players production more than meets the challenges. Running away with our hearts is Martha Ansfield-Scrase as Dot, the fictional mistress of late-19th century post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat whose most famous painting is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Now in the Art Institute of Chicago, it’s a monumental pointillist work measuring 207.6 centimetres by 308 centimetres that took Seurat two years to complete and was the inspiration for Sondheim and Lapine.
We meet Ansfield-Scrase first as her character poses for the artist/lover while singing her complaint (“Sunday in the Park with George”). Sunday after Sunday she spends standing bored and immobile while Seurat obsessively paints. Ansfield-Scrase has a beautiful voice and such clear enunciation that not a word of Sondheim’s lyrics is missed. She’s young, lively and pretty in Act I; director Mooney could have pulled back on her Act II portrayal of Marie, the now 90-year-old daughter of Dot and Seurat. Marie is old — she’s not batty.
In this production, Brandyn Eddy portrays Seurat in Act I and Seurat’s imagined grandson George, also an artist, in Act II. A charismatic performer, Eddy has a fine, confident voice; he sings the frenzied “Finishing the Hat” while up a ladder feverishly dabbing thousands of little points of paint on what we know will be A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In Act II, Eddy and Ansfield-Scrase sing “Move On,” a song that captures what artists (including Sondheim) must do to continue evolving. Mooney capably directs a terrific cast of fifteen while Clare Wyatt directs four (unseen) musicians.
Sunday in the Park with George fictionalizes Seurat’s history: he had a mistress named Madeleine Knobloch (not Dot); he had two sons both of whom died in childhood; no daughter named Marie; and no grandson named George.
What has not been fictionalized, however, are the values Seurat said art should strive for. Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony. These are the values we see in all of Sondheim’s work, too.
Set design by Sandy Margaret begins as a beautiful exercise of white-on-white: white floor, white background, white props and all performers dressed in white-on-white period costumes (by CS Fergusson-Vaux). By Act II, colour — eventually black — is introduced. The staging is lovely to look at and perfectly matched with the subject.
One critic called Sunday in the Park with George “lopsided” with Act I and II at such stylistic odds. But Sondheim cleverly moves us from fictionalized biography to the contemplation of the business of art — including theatre: the marketing, displaying, buying and selling thereof. One thing is certain, you will look at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with new, more curious eyes. This production is a feast for the eyes and ears, food for thought and classic Sondheim.
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Sunday in the Park with George is at Jericho Arts Centre until Feb. 12. For tickets, call 604-224-8007 or go to unitedplayers.com.