Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sunday in the Park With George (Lakeland Theatre)

A pleasant ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’ at Lakeland

Painter Georges Seurat and musical theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim have much in common. Though noted as being successful in their fields, both
had personal and career highs and lows.

Seurat, who is the subject of Sondheim’s ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE,’ like Sondheim was revered and disliked because of his penchant for breaking out of the lines.

Seurat broke from traditional realism and embraced a style of painting based on dabs, rather than brush strokes. Using his scientific knowledge, he placed the dots in such proximity to each other that they created light, shadow and color. The technique, entitled “pointillism,” was disliked by traditional painters of his time. Seurat was considered an
outcast and was refused participation in the major art shows of his day. Seurat, it is rumored, did not sell a single major painting while he was alive.

Sondheim is also controversial. With few exceptions his works are intellectual, not intended only to entertain, but also to enlighten. Often they contain a negative-toned woman, who, like Sondheim’s own mother, is all-controlling. Think Mamma Rose in ‘GYPSY’ and the Wicked Witch in ‘INTO THE WOODS.’

Sondheim also doesn’t write songs that can be easily removed from the script and be placed on the top hits lists. He writes songs for his characters to sing that fit completely into the dialogue, reveal something about the person, or helps develop the plot. Though popular among theatre performers, the vast amount of his work is unknown to the general public.

Though Sondheim, like Seurat, is assumed to be a total success (‘GYPSY,’ ‘SWEENEY TODD,’ ‘COMPANY,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM”), this assumption is not true. He had
minor successes such as ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ and ‘PACIFIC OVERTURES, ‘and outright flops like ‘SATURDAY NIGHT’ and ‘MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.’ After ‘MERRILY’ Sondheim quit the theatre. He was, however, lured back by James Lapine, with the idea of writing a musical based on the life of Seurat and his painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Though the musical never achieved greatness, it did run for almost a year and a half and has some wonderful songs.

In ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK’ Sondheim wrote music in the artistic style of Seurat. As one critic put it, "Sondheim’s work has such reach, there is so much emotional resonance, that many observers take it personally and become as fascinated with the artist as with the art.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK,’ though Jerry Herman's ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,’ a traditionally formatted show, was selected by the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score.

The first act takes place in nineteenth-century France. Georges struggles with his art and his personal life. He is completely engrossed in his artwork and not with his pregnant girlfriend/model, Dot. She leaves him to find a more supportive man. The act introduces the audience to many of the subjects in the painting (a fisherman, nurse, old
lady, American tourists, teenage girls and Dot).

Act Two, is set in New York and Paris in 1984. Georges' great-grandson, George, is struggling to find inspiration in his artwork. He is helped when the spirit of Dot returns with some wise words as he visits La Grade Jatte.

The first act is stronger than the second. In fact, the final act was finished only days before the show opened on Broadway and failed to receive the polishing needed.

The musical is a difficult undertaking for any theatre. Considering that Lakeland’s production has only one equity performer (young Emma Wahl), and she does not have a major role, the production is impressive. Much credit goes to Martin Freedman, the show’s director and Sondheim devotee.

Amiee Collier is excellent as Dot and later as George’s grandmother. She has a strong singing voice and interprets meanings, rather than just singing words. This is imperative in a Sondheim show. She also develops clear characterizations. Mary Jane Nottage is endearing as the “old lady.”

Andrew Tarr puts out a yeoman’s effort into developing the roles of Georges and George but he does not have the acting or the vocal prowess to pull off the roles. One only had to have seen Mandy Patinkin in the Broadway production or listen to his vocalizations on the CD of the show to hear the complexity of the music and of the character.

Keith Nagy’s sets and lighting designs add much to the production as does the musical direction of Larry Goodpaster. Unfortunately, the theatre’s poor sound system caused vocal distortions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Seurat contended that a painting is composed of design, order, composition, light and harmony. The same can be said of a musical. Lakeland
should be proud of its artistic composition.