Sondheim Defines the Quality of Art in Huntington Theatre’s Production of “Sunday in the Park with George”
by Rosie Rosenzweig, Resident Scholar, Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center
The Huntington theatre, recently saved from its demise, opens the 2016-2017 season with a smashing Broadway-quality production of Sondheim’s musical statement about the nature of art. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Sunday in the Park with George” literally has the characters in George Seurat’s classic painting come to life and speak to the artist. Artists interviewed by this reviewer confirm this process to be life-giving as they watch their own creations take on a life of their own. The characters in this presentation constantly startle us by stepping out of the tableau, while the others remain frozen like statues, to comment on the theme, the actions, and their true feelings.
Lead actor Adam Chanler-Berat as George Seurat demonstrates this as he actually becomes the dog in this famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” set in 1884; in his laugh-out-loud performance, he barks, pants, and mimes the mannerisms of a dog presenting his stomach for a tummy rub. In the second act set 100 years later, we see George’s great-grandson lost in the cloying courtship of sponsors for his trite light shows, and seeking inspiration for his next endeavor. Both scenes are full of humor, sight gags, and a serious search for true experience of Flow.
While the protagonist is ostensibly George Seurat, Sondheim’s themes are beyond just one artist: Essentially the grand character of art itself is the protagonist asking the age-old question: What exactly is true art? Seurat states that visual art is design, composition, the balance of light and harmony. Essentially, art brings order to chaos with harmony.
And this production demonstrates just that when the cacophony of simultaneous conversations and movement are directed by Seurat who moves characters and landscape into a lovely silent tableau with the just the right amount of light and color. Every element joins into a silent ballet to a meditative serenity that is beautiful to behold. Act 2 enacts a different kind of ballad with the affected movements of the pretentious contemporary art scene and hilarious use of life-size cutouts.
Chanler-Berat’s voice and mannerism demonstrate the artist’s intense autotelic process with brush strokes of Seurat’s Pointillism in counterpoint with his lover’s needs to Sondheim’s score which is actually Pointillism in music. Director Peter DuBois describes in more detail:
“The music also tells the story; it is not just the lyrics. The melody, the rhythm, the tone are each a representation of the story he is unfolding before the audience. Sometimes the music creates a sense of irony between what is being sung and what is being felt. . .. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. We are exploring the Bach or Mozart of our time — fearless as a composer and a perfectionist.”
The musical explores the experience of Seurat’s revolutionary contribution combining scientific visual principles with his focused use of thousands of dots, allowing the viewer to combine them and make art with his or her own eyes. That Seurat’s mistress was named Dot, is another tongue-in-cheek element of that art.
Lead actress Jenni Barber exhibits attention-grabbing presence, aplomb and perfect pitch in her role as George’s lover that she sometimes steals the show with her caricatured stances, body language and facial expressions. Her eye-balling, pouts, and expressions are reminiscent of Lucille Ball, the queen of daytime TV laughter.
This production is the second of an ambitious plan to stage all 15 Stephen Sondheim musicals. Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois explains his “dizzying and profound” experience “working on a musical about artistic creation: “it’s about the act of creation and about artistic obsession—the highs and lows!” He embodied the best of his art from the ballet of movement within the tableaus to Seurat’s concentrated flecking of light to the affected postures of the contemporary art scene in Act Two, where the entire cast showcased its versatility in its range of accents and body language.
Local actress Bobbie Steinbach, who plays George’s mother with gusto and attitude says that: “You see her one way early on, and very differently later.” She interprets the piece as really being about, “Sondheim himself and his own unresolved relationship with his mother.” After his father abandoned him when he was 10, he was subject to psychological abuse from his mother. Subsequently, he refused to attend her 1992 funeral.
“Sunday in the Park with George” will play through October 16, 2016 at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. For more information, call 617-266-0800; or go to huntingtontheatre.org.