"SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE," Pegasus Players at Truman Colleges ORourke Center for the Performing Arts
BY LUCIA MAURO
Watching this Pegasus Players production of "Sunday in the Park with George," Stephen Sondheim and James Lapines musical deconstruction of Georges Seurats famed pointillist painting, is a lot like experiencing the visual work of art that comes into focus as the viewer gradually steps back from its intricate dots. This capable but laborious staging, directed by Gareth Hendee (a longtime Lapine collaborator), begins to take shape in the latter half.
The theatrical journey unlike the lively process of studying Seurats "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the French painters late-19th century paean to light, color and the common man can be tedious despite the musicals perceptive commentaries on the fleeting vagaries of the art world.
Pegasus Players, based at Truman Colleges ORourke Center for the Performing Arts, prides itself in its long commitment to presenting the intellectually intense works of composer-lyricist Sondheim. Theres no mistaking the companys commitment. Unfortunately, Hendee takes a surprisingly tepid approach to such a luminously layered musical (even though the second act appears forced and didactic). Emotions are strained, contained or altogether absent in this alternatingly lovely and dull interpretation.
Scenic Designer Jack Magaw and lighting designer Peter Ksander, however, must be commended for transforming the usually drab and clunky ORourke Center stage into a lush and suggestive canvas. Seurats wavy scribbles and anatomy sketches frame three prosceniums, which serve as multitiered frames for the live recreations of the artists controversial and unconventional Impressionist paintings. Ksanders powdery and creamy whites touchingly mirror Seurats own textures and experiments with light.
"Sunday in the Park with George," which snared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, uses Seurat as a jumping-off point for exploring balance and harmony in ones life. The first act takes us through the creation of "La Grand Jatte" as the driven, self-absorbed painter sacrifices personal satisfaction for his desire to capture light. He neglects his mistress-muse, the wryly named Dot. She later leaves Seurat for another kind of artist Louis the baker, who harnesses divine flavors in his breads and pastries.
Seurat is also at odds with Jules, a popular and wealthy artist jealous of his progressive peer. Various subplots involving the other characters in the painting from Seurats aged mother and Jules frigid wife to giddy young girls and a gruff boatman flesh out these two-dimensional renderings on canvas. The artist continues to paint ordinary people at the park inadvertently commenting on class divisions and the hypocrisies inherent to best-dressed Sunday show-offs and descend into tortured isolation.
The early part of the show does not bring "La Grande Jatte" to life as much as it allows it to take shape. It then aims to fill in the paintings stiff shadows of people with ardent, confused and irritable emotions.
The second act jumps ahead to Seurats great-grandson, George, an American contemporary artist specializing in conceptual light installations. Set in both a gallery and the modern-day park at "La Grande Jatte," this section ponders the politics and contrived flavor-of-the month trappings of the art world best illustrated by the string/straightjacket-like ensemble showstopper, "Putting It Together." Some of the better executed numbers, under musical director Jon Steinhagen, are "Finishing the Hat," "Beautiful" and "Its Hot Up Here."
Not all the performers are up to the fiendishly difficult task of tackling and humanizing Sondheims mathematical musicality. While Sara C. Walsh gives Dot a likable realness (and the modern Georges grandmother Marie a grounded eccentricity), she does not have the vocal chops to carry the shows more complex numbers. Rather than convey Sondheims artful dissonance, she is just out of tune. Joel Sutliffe pours his heart into the dual role of Seurat/George and is one of the stronger vocalists. But he has yet to get a handle on the quietly unfurling textures of his characters.
Other cast members, no doubt coached this way by Hendee, opt for fussy portrayals notably Sara Minton as Seurats mother, Heather Johnson as spoiled child Louise, and Charissa Armon and Jeny Wasilewski as two flirtatious young girls. Some, like Ghuon "Max" Chung as Louis and Belinda Belk as the rival painters unfulfilled wife Yvonne, are flat musically and dramatically.
The more polished performers include Jason Sperlings embittered Boatman, Jack Tippetts haughty Jules, and Aaron Graham and Gail Becker in multiple roles (including two libidinous servants and boorish American tourists) despite the latter couples overzealous, and unintentional, flinging of pastries. Michael Growlers costumes are an odd but not entirely unpleasant mix of shabby-staid and pop-art outlandish.
One of Seurats goals was to allow viewers to mix the colors on a canvas and arrange their very personal sense of what constitutes beauty. But his meticulous positioning of the tiny brush strokes guides the eye into an ethereal artistic plane. Pegasus Players generally uninspired production does not quite connect the dots to form an aesthetically pleasing theatrical whole.
Pegasus Players staging of "Sunday in the Park with George" runs through June 30 at Truman Colleges ORourke Center for the Performing Arts, 1145 W. Wilson. Tickets: $23-$25. Call 773-878-9761.