A majestic “Sunday in the Park with George” at the Pasadena Playhouse
Great artists don’t always get their due in America. That can’t be said of Stephen Sondheim, whose work only seems to gain in esteem and public affection with the passage of time.
It’s worth noting that when Sondheim began writing his own original shows, he was accused of killing what audiences loved most about musical theater — its sentimentality. He was clever, ironic and uncompromisingly adventurous. But many asked if he had a heart.
In Sunday in the Park With George, one of Sondheim’s undisputed masterpieces, he delves into the dilemma of a pioneering artist who refuses to live up to expectations in his work or in his relationships. The personal cost is enormous, but Georges Seurat, the French neo-impressionist who is the subject of the musical’s imaginative investigation, leaves not only a new perspective but a different register for understanding emotions.
A majestic new production of “Sunday in the Park With George” opened Sunday as part of the Pasadena Playhouse’s six-month Sondheim celebration. It’s being touted as the first major festival to honor the work of the composer and lyricist since his death in 2021, but it feels part of a theater-wide salute that shows no sign of abating.
The divine Broadway revival of Into the Woods, which wrapped up last month, comes to the Ahmanson Theater in June. A new “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, opens on Broadway in March and will be directed by “Hamilton” Tony-winner Thomas Kail. And the New York Theater Workshop’s recent production of “Merily We Roll Along,” starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, redeemed one of Sondheim’s rare flops and secured a major spot on Broadway next fall.
Closer to home, post-riot East West Players delivered a bold production of Assassins, another intriguingly unruly Sondheim property. There were also concerts, books (including DT Max’s “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim”), recordings, and various tributes, the most moving of which was the gathering of Broadway luminaries in Manhattan’s Theater District after Sondheim’s death for a performance of “Sunday.” from “Sunday in the Park with George” in honor of the Maestro.
You’d think those of us keeping an eye would have had our fill by now, but a true theater lover can never have too much Sondheim. The Pasadena Playhouse festival kicked off in January with Into the Woods. This presentation, a collaboration between theater and high school students and teachers from the Pasadena Unified School District, placed the Sondheim celebration on a strong common ground.
The Pasadena Playhouse has pulled out all the stops for Sunday In the Park With George, the festival’s first main stage offering. Directed by Sarna Lapine, this sumptuous production features a full orchestra, conducted by Broadway veteran Andy Einhorn, and a sizable (and no doubt murderously expensive) cast.
Lapine is the niece of James Lapine, who wrote the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book and directed the original 1983 Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons, which moved to Broadway the following year. She brings a track record with Sunday in the Park With George, having directed the acclaimed 2017 Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role.
The Pasadena Playhouse production stars Graham Phillips as George, a bearded French painter who is solely focused on his work, and Krystina Alabado as Dot, his weary model and frustrated lover. These performers dominate the stage, both in the first act, which presents the meticulous creation of Seurat’s seminal masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and in the second, which jumps forward a century to envision a descendant of Seurat , an innovative American artist caught in the vise of the contemporary art market.
The members of the design team (namely set designer Beowulf Boritt, projection designer Tal Yarden and lighting designer Ken Billington) also deserve the highest credit. This musical meditation on the maddening, wondrous quest of a visionary artist is brought to life with stunning visual genius.
The production beautifully suggests the symmetry between Seurat’s story and Sondheim’s own. Seurat’s in-process painting, a scene of Parisians lounging in a park on the banks of the Seine on an ordinary Sunday, is projected onto a grid behind which the orchestra can be seen.
Seurat is known for introducing Pointillism, a branch of Impressionism that included a new scientific understanding of human perception. The technique involves dots of color applied in patterns, which are then blended by the viewer’s eye into a fuller palette of tones.
Characters in Seurat aren’t as clearly defined as they would be in the hands of more conventional performers like Jules (Michael Manuel), George’s pompous, power-giving rival in the musical. Sondheim and James Lapine also do not deal with traditional characterizations. They work in writing, vivid outlines so sprinkled with music that depths of feeling appear almost out of nowhere.
Like Seurat’s unorthodox brushwork, Sondheim’s post-Rodgers and Hammerstein songwriting conjures up a mirage of its own. The orchestra and singers tell a deeper story of love, loss and artistic gain than the libretto alone expresses.
What’s stopping Lapine’s good production from being great? The answer lies in the subtlest of calibrations, but in general the direction leans too heavily on the book. That’s not where the genius of this musical lies.
The cast could have used a little more resistance to the show’s comic caricatures (the ugly Americans in Act I, the museum vultures in Act II). These characters are roughly sketched, but don’t need to be played quite as cartoonishly.
Artistic director Danny Feldman remarked in his curtain call how rare it is to experience a show of this magnitude in a venue as relatively intimate as the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure I feel lucky to have had this opportunity, but the quality of the amplification hinders the alchemy of the songs.
Voice textures are lost and with them a not insignificant part of George and Dot’s romantic story. The music offers space for a glimpse into art, which cannot be realized in real life. (Art isn’t easy, as Sondheim’s text tells us, but it can show us the ideal that denies messy, boisterous reality.) The deep emotional bond between George and Dot, though hampered by an uncooperative storyline, has a chance to become chromatic expression in her singing.
Phillips and Alabado have some difficulty connecting on this transcendent level. The problem is partly acoustic. (The chorus numbers also have a dim penumbra.) But George and Dot’s underlying connection is only vaguely present here.
Phillips, an actor and filmmaker who grew up as an opera soloist, caught my attention last year in the role of Nick in the Geffen Playhouse revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In “Sunday in the Park with George” he is more poignant when George is alone with his canvas than when he has to interact with Dot, his lover, who models for him all day under a hot sun and expects some tenderness for her dedicated work .
Two is a lot for an artist with unlimited ambition and limited time. (Seurat died at 31.) Dot is both attracted and hurt by George’s unwavering commitment to his work. But Alabado can only hint at her character’s higher aspirations. The undertone of Dot’s subconscious gets lost in all the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
When Alabado stars in Act II as Marie, George and Dot’s illegitimate daughter, now the 98-year-old grandmother of a trendy American installation artist named George, the demands of playing a ninety-year-old are more of a hindrance than the sound system. Marie’s number “Children and Art” leaves a playful impression, in which she tries to pass on the knowledge of her long life.
But Alabado and Phillips find the hard-earned wisdom of George and Dot’s love story in a moving rendition of “Move On.” The song shows the lingering emotion of lost love in a hall of mirrors that defies the laws of time and reason.
Art allows such freedoms. And great art like “Sunday in the Park with George” is a blessing, even in a production that can only polish its grandeur.
“Sunday in the Park with George”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
If: 8pm Tuesday to Friday, 2pm and 8pm Saturday, 2pm and 7pm Sunday. Ends March 19th.
Tickets: Start at $39
The information: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes including a 15 minute break
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-02-21/sunday-in-the-park-with-george-pasadena-playhouse-theater-review A majestic “Sunday in the Park with George” at the Pasadena Playhouse