Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Sunny Sunday in the Park With George

Taking a risk is almost always a good thing. 


Photo by T Charles Erickson


That was my thought while watching Sunday in the Park With George, the Guthrie's latest mainstage offering. For the past several years since they really started focusing on producing extraordinary summer musicals, the Guthrie has chosen to stick with relatively safe classics a la standards like Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, My Fair Lady and The Music Man. As much as I love those shows I've seen them a million times, so I was grateful this year for a breath of fresh air with the new-to-me Sunday in the Park With George by Stephen Sondheim, incredibly the first time a Sondheim show has been produced at the big G.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

A truly postmodern musical, Sunday in the Park With George is really two separate stories. Act I imagines what is passing through the mind of Georges Seurat as he paints his now infamous pointilist classic A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a true epochal piece in the span of the impressionist era that moved painting forward into a more abstract realm. Act I sees the characters of this painting step outside of the frame into vibrant, breathing life and not only imagines each of their stories and personalities but how they are interrelated. A special focus is George's love affair with Dot, a muse whose inner strength ultimately can't allow her to spend her life languishing in a dark studio amongst the absence of George's affections. Act II fasts forward 100 years or so to George's grandson George 2.0, also a visionary artist (although of modern sculpture), as he reconnects with his roots on his predecessor's home soil and learns of his filial connection with Seurat through his grandmother's beautiful stories.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

As always, the Guthrie outdid itself with the set. Designed by Jan Chambers, the bulk of the action is set against an enormous empty painting frame. For Act I, a sinuous, billowing sheet cascades through one side of the frame and hosts a myriad of painterly projections; for Act II, several lovely objects (such as young George's modern light sculpture and an unbelievably well-made copy of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte) are suspended in front of it. The simple staging has the effect of making the characters truly seem to step to life out of the painting, and it was my favorite part of the show. Set pieces otherwise are nearly non-existent and consist of simple furnishings popped up whenever we are in the elder George's house. The costumes are period-specific and lavishly outlandish (but wonderful); outsized bustles, precariously tied corsets, a plethora of parasols and the most superb 1980s wigs I've ever seen fly around the stage, and they bring rich color to the otherwise starkly colorless set. Wigs off to costume designer Ton-Leslie James; her work is inspired and I hope we see more of her.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

The cast is quite talented, particularly the riveting Erin Mackey. Mackey stars as Georges' lover Dot in Act I and George's grandmother Marie in Act II, and she easily has the most lovely solos of the bunch in both roles. She is vivacious, captivating and pitch-perfect; Erin, please stay in the Twin Cities! Randy Harrison is dry and difficult as the elder George but much more engaging as the younger George in Act II. Something about his overwhelming beard in Act I really dulls the emotion of his character somehow, but his zest and passion are much more apparent in Act II. The company includes a tour of other well-played characters. Sasha Andreev is the comic standout as Franz; Ann Michels is perfectly snobby as Yvonne; Paul Nakauchi is imperious as Jules; and Emily Gunyou Halaas is vibrant as the Nurse for George's mother, played with nuance by Christine Toy Johnson. There weren't many musical standouts for me in this show aside from Mackey's perfect dictations; the melodies were not nearly as interesting as the story. Still, the cast sings with gusto, and if you happen to already love the songs of Sunday in the Park, you'll be well pleased with their efforts.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

I have a hit and miss relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who won a Pulitzer for writing Sunday in the Park With George. I tend to enjoy his work in film much more than on stage, and at first I thought that was the case with this show. With the passing of a few days and some time to let it sink in, however, I have found that Sunday in the Park With George really lingers with me. I think it's because of the show's focus on the nexus between dreams and reality, something that all of us struggle with (although not always in such sharp relief as it is depicted here). How do you choose between disparate things which you love equally? Can you die of a broken heart? Is pushing your intellectual vision at the expense of your spiritual happiness really worth it? Why does knowing your heritage matter? Sunday in the Park With George is steeped in a certain pomposity that can be a little difficult (Is it true that making art is "extremely difficult" in the realm of this show's bubble? Sure. In the greater scope of all human life on earth? Hell no, let's be real). But if you can get over that hump and into the park with the Georges, you just may find some questions worth answering on your own.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

You have plenty of time to see Sunday in the Park With George, as it runs at the Guthrie through August 20. It's something I'd definitely recommend attending to fill a rainy day, maybe coupled with a visit to one of the excellent museums in the Twin Cities. This unique show will give you a lot to contemplate in addition to some gorgeous staging to enjoy along the way. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.