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Theater Review:

"SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE," Pegasus Players at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts


Watching this Pegasus Players’ production of "Sunday in the Park with George," Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical deconstruction of Georges Seurat’s 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 Seurat’s "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the French painter’s late-19th century paean to light, color and the common man – can be tedious despite the musical’s perceptive commentaries on the fleeting vagaries of the art world.

Pegasus Players, based at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, prides itself in its long commitment to presenting the intellectually intense works of composer-lyricist Sondheim. There’s no mistaking the company’s 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 O’Rourke Center stage into a lush and suggestive canvas. Seurat’s wavy scribbles and anatomy sketches frame three prosceniums, which serve as multitiered frames for the live recreations of the artist’s controversial and unconventional Impressionist paintings. Ksander’s powdery and creamy whites touchingly mirror Seurat’s 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 one’s 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 Seurat’s 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 painting’s stiff shadows of people with ardent, confused and irritable emotions.

The second act jumps ahead to Seurat’s 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 "It’s Hot Up Here."

Not all the performers are up to the fiendishly difficult task of tackling – and humanizing – Sondheim’s mathematical musicality. While Sara C. Walsh gives Dot a likable realness (and the modern George’s grandmother Marie a grounded eccentricity), she does not have the vocal chops to carry the show’s more complex numbers. Rather than convey Sondheim’s 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 Seurat’s 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 painter’s unfulfilled wife Yvonne, are flat musically and dramatically.

The more polished performers include Jason Sperling’s embittered Boatman, Jack Tippett’s haughty Jules, and Aaron Graham and Gail Becker in multiple roles (including two libidinous servants and boorish American tourists) – despite the latter couple’s overzealous, and unintentional, flinging of pastries. Michael Growler’s costumes are an odd but not entirely unpleasant mix of shabby-staid and pop-art outlandish.

One of Seurat’s 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 College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, 1145 W. Wilson. Tickets: $23-$25. Call 773-878-9761.

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