Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Sunday in the Park With George

As made clear in James Lapine's must-read Putting It Together (review here), the development of his and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George was hectic, odd, and messy. In many ways, the show is too.

Sunday grew out of Lapine's and Sondheim's imaginative responses to Georges Serault's masterpiece, "A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and their ideas on the creation of art (spoiler alert: it isn't easy). While most musicals might be seen as equivalent to novels, Sunday is an anthology. The result is sporadically brilliant, often gorgeous, occasionally boring, and sometimes off-putting. Many people love it; many hate it. I'm somewhere in between: I love parts of the show ("Finishing the Hat," "Sunday," "Move On," etc.) and could definitely live without the rest of it.

Photo by David Fuller

I've previously seen different versions of Sunday on Broadway, with full(-ish) orchestras and star casting. Theatre 2020's current uneven production is my first little Sunday. Having loved little versions of Follies and Night Music, I was intrigued to see how little Sunday would work.

First to be considered is the lack of an orchestra. While musical director Michael O'Dell is truly heroic on the sole piano, the other instruments are missed--that's just a given. On the other hand, the actors are unmiked, and that is a complete pleasure.

The show is performed without a conductor. While many piano-only shows are conducted from the bench, O'Dell is more than fully occupied playing the two or three million notes in the score. Considering that Sondheim is famous for producing difficult songs with odd timing, the cast's singing without being conducted is truly impressive. 

Josh Powell, Rae Hillman  
Photo: John Hoffman

Then there are the physical aspects of the show. The Theatre 2020 production is done on a bare stage with the occasional bench brought on and off and projections/video upstage. Projection/video designer Alex Kopnick's work is imaginative and attractive.

The costumes are less successful. While limitations are acceptable in a small production, sloppiness isn't. Dot's bustle is distractingly misshapen; Jules' clothing fits badly, undercutting a character who would likely be immaculate; some items referred to in the score--a hat, a parasol, etc--are simply missing; some costumes are remarkably unbecoming to their wearers. 

The cast and the direction are uneven. Rae Hillman, who plays Dot/Marie, took over the part after the first performance when the original performer fell ill. While she would profit from more prep time and direction (duh), she gives a solid, confident performance. George/George is, unfortunately, out of his depth here. Rather than being intense and art-centered, with an underlying sexiness and tenderness, this George is  petulant and whiny.

Standouts in the rest of the cast include Caryn Hartglass as the Old Lady/Blair Daniels. She makes "Beautiful" a highlight of the show. (She also gets the two of the best costumes.) Albert Neithropp impresses as Soldier/Alex; he is the George understudy, and I would love to see him in the role. And Raffaela Cicchetti (Louise/Photographer and Museum Assistant) is the rare adult who can totally pull off a kid's role without looking like an adult pulling off a kid's role. 

Director David Fuller pushes for too much theatricality in the acting for a small space and the movement lacks a certain polish. 

Sunday in the Park With George is an ambitious choice for a small theatre, and Fuller and O'Dell ultimately give us a decent, occasionally quite-good production.

Wendy Caster

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