SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE by Stephen Sondheim at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall
“Blank, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: to bring order to the whole, through drawing, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony.” –George’s opening lines from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
White, a blank stage. The challenge: to bring it to life through acting, singing, staging, lighting, costumes and the heart. And that’s exactly what director Jack Holloway and his young cast and crew, with just four weeks of rehearsal, achieved with SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.
Art is not easy. And creating works on the actual creation of famous works of art can be even more difficult. We have seen films about famous artists (agony and ecstasy [Michelangelo], The girl with the pearl [Vermeer]) or games (Red [Rothko] and After Magritte [um, Magritte]); some are more successful than others, but all show to some degree the struggle of creation, the sweat that goes into the work of grinding down a road strewn with painted canvases towards eternity. Perhaps the ultimate creation on the act of creating, “the art of making art,” is Pulitzer Prize-winning SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine) 1984 for the drama on pointillism by Georges Seurat. masterpiece, a painting literally created by a myriad of dots, Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte.
The painting is currently one of the key pieces hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago, and when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine ventured to see it in person forty years ago, they saw all of these figures posing in the work, disconnected bodies turned in different directions. , but realized that someone was missing: the artist. The following would become one of Sondheim’s most famous scores, with some of his best songs including “Sunday”, “Putting It Together”, “Move On”, and “Finishing the Hat”, the latter being used by Sondheim as the title of the first part of his lyrical memoir. As famous as the show is, and as beloved by Sondheim fanatics as it has obviously become, it is sadly rarely produced, so when a theatrical organization proudly takes on this beast of a show, then you owe it to yourself to go. .
Young adults from the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts (alumni of summer camp) bravely perform SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at the Murray Theater in Ruth Eckerd Hall as part of their Summer of Sondheim; it runs until Saturday 2 July. (In the woods will be played by a younger group later this summer.) Over the years I have had the honor of attending so many summer performances by these incredibly talented students, from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Wizard of Oz, Sweeney Todd, and A funny thing happened on the way to the forum to last year The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. They were all wonderful, bursting with verve and talent. But nothing could prepare me for the excellence of this one.
Act 1 of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE follows a fictionalized look at real-life painter George Seurat as he obsessively draws and paints the inhabitants of this waterside park: fishing girls , bathers, soldiers, a family, a one-eyed boatman, a bratty little girl, a chef, and George’s hidden love of life, aptly named Dot. We follow his obsessive need to complete this gigantic work on all feelings and attractions towards the opposite sex. He chooses immortality over his love for Dot, and the work he creates is initially met with derision by the public. (It’s hard to believe he never sold a work during his lifetime.) But the story gets it right and Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte would become a masterpiece after his death at age 31. Act 2 is set in the 1980s, with George’s grandson, also named George, trying to create a modern sculptural piece of light (Chromolume #7) at a time when marketing matters as much as any painting or sculpture. But the modern world and the world of Seurat’s original painting come together in the end, and to quote Richard E. Grant in The player“there is not a dry eye in the house.”
As the main character, Chris Cavazza reaches new heights. With his pointed beard (the beard looks almost like a character in its own right), he looks not only like the real Seurat but also the obsessives of the movie world – George Lucas and a young Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Cavazza’s George is so focused, his intense eyes piercing holes in everything he observes. Holding his brush like a dart, he attacks the canvas, pricking it with dots, stabbing it with color. He is a motivated man, a scholar, his life otherwise lacks spice. “I don’t hide behind my canvas,” George says at one point. “I live in it!” Its objective is to transform chaos into order, instability into balance. It’s a starring role for Mr. Cavazza, the one people are talking about and upcoming musical directors must do everything possible to see. He hits incredible notes; at one point he sings the word “Sunday”, extending the note like a sondheimized Bill Withers.
There’s a moment when Mr. Cavazza reenacts a dog he’s painting, and the actor turns around barking; he’s like a young Robin Williams here, acting like the dog has possessed his soul. He changes his voice, becoming multiple personalities, like Sybil, the most famous pointillist in the world. Such a joy to watch. And to top it off, his “Finishing the Hat” is superb.
Mr. Cavazza is as strong as the other George, the grandson. In “Putting It Together” we see the Jekyll and Hyde quality of an inhibited artist whose work – and whose life – is on display. George de M. Cavazza has mastered the art of the public smile and the private grunt. If you ever doubt the future of musical theater, then Mr. Cavazza and the rest of the cast will fill your heart with so much hope.
We see the opposite of George with Dot, his high-spirited chief model who dreams of being in the follies. Where George is detached precision, Dot is fire. Lindsey Fabian outdoes herself as the attitudinal Dot. Posing for Georges painting, she squints at the sun, bored and frustrated. She tries to connect with George, a man who can only connect with his art. And what a voice! Ms. Fabian approaches some of Sondheim’s toughest lyrics with aplomb, as if striving for a Tongue-Twister Championship (is there such a thing?)
I love how Dot sings the names of her infatuations – her future love Louis, she sings with a cadence in her voice, but when she calls the name “George” it’s filled with a combination of love and irritation. (Irritation, it seems, has become Dot’s obsessive art form.) Her singing is out of this world, especially the stellar “We Do Not Belong Together.” Ms. Fabian has always been an amazing singer, but she also upped her acting game in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.
When Ms. Fabian and Mr. Cavazza are together, we feel their connection and become sad when that connection cannot be made. And when their two worlds merge at the end with the soulful “Move On,” I worry for everyone who doesn’t get emotional here. Several audience members could be seen wiping away tears after such a heartfelt duet.
Dior Dollmont as an old lady also connects with George; I love how she’s not afraid to touch her face while she sings. I may not be a fan of her old woman makeup, but she makes up for it by commanding the scene with tons of spunk and wit. Lindsey Weidenfeller offers Mrs. Dollmont a nice sheet as her annoyed nurse.
Cody Farkas, ever so good on stage, makes an almost arrogant and snobby Jules, a man who can’t quite grasp the pictorial revolution on the canvas in front of him; Cameron Swango makes fun of his other half wonderfully. Seaira Anderson stands out as German coachman Franz. Alexander Colletti is striking as the chef, Louis, and adds so much joy to the role, even though I couldn’t always hear him. Robert Matson is terrific as the grumpy boatman who wears an eye patch and always seems to be chasing the bratty Louisa, played well by young Beatrice Ford. And Skylar Carlson and McKenzie Carlson, both representing girls named Celeste, do well with their song “Gossip.”
The talented Carissa Amoroso, Christian Ross and Emily Lavechia all provide solid support. Dylan Odom breathes so much life into the role of a soldier, and like the other soldier, a mute, Graham Mastro steals his scenes; he’s like a young Harpo Marx, his eyes almost seem to pop out of their sockets.
The vocals and harmonies are divine, thanks to musical director Yohance Wicks. The musicians, seen in the background, make the show move: Kyle Collins, Susan Dollmont and Tristan Goodrich. The set is suitably sparse, surrounded by empty frames (and reminiscent of ELP’s Pictures at an exhibition album cover).
Technically best of all are the wonderfully creative and compelling Betty-Jane Parks projections that help tell the story with different versions of Seurat’s most famous work. Mike Shine’s lighting is good, but I was disappointed with the Chromolume #7 light show. And Mary Kraack’s costumes fit the show perfectly.
Make no mistake, this Murray Theater production exists because of one soul: Jack Holloway. His directing, his work to improve the actors, is beyond inspiring; it’s miraculous what he has accomplished with these young performers.
I’ve seen so many summer camp shows over the years here, but this one hits a new high. You get the feeling from the cast and crew that they know they’re in the middle of something really exciting and special. Stephen Sondheim may have passed away last November, but through his works and through those who perform them, he lives on forever. It’s so encouraging to see a whole new generation discover and dive into his magic, not only to understand Sondheim, but also to bring him, and one of his most difficult works, to life. And they will pass this joy on to the next generation.
I know SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH George May isn’t for everyone; it contains no singing candelabras, man-eating plants or rapping founding fathers. He has one of the most uncompromising scores in Sondheim, but if you give in, the pleasures are endless. It’s impossible not to get misty-eyed at the end of Act 1 or the end of the show, when the celestial song “Sunday” is performed, especially when it’s sung so beautifully, so angelically. Sondheim himself misted his eyes every time he heard him play; of all the songs he wrote, this has remained one of his favorites. The show itself is the most autobiographical of his works – a harrowing yet thought-provoking look at the process of creation, where man comes to understand what it feels like to be God.