Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Since little is known about Seurat, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine crafted an almost entirely fictional story. In act one, set in 1880s France, we find Seurat obsessed with the creation of "La Grande Jatte" and meet many of the characters who are found in that painting. Foremost is Dot, George's mistress and model who loves George but leaves him since she is frustrated that he is more interested in completing the two dimensional people in his paintings than spending time with her. Act two is set one hundred years later in 1980s Chicago where George and Dot's great grandson, also named George, finds himself in the same dilemma as Seurat. But through his 98-year-old grandmother Marie, who is Seurat and Dot's daughter, and the reappearance of Dot, he finds a way to move on and eventually connect to life.
The beauty of the musical is best represented by the song "Sunday" in which all of the bickering characters we've met, whom George has been sketching, are maneuvered and arranged by George into a full life version of the "La Grande Jatte" painting. It is in this culmination that we see how a great artist combines the small pieces to form the larger whole, how beauty can be made from chaos, and how a masterpiece is born.
Kyle Bennett is impressive as both Georges, with a strong, clear voice and a deep connection to the character. He clearly demonstrates the obsessive passion for art, the need to create, and the distance from the people around him that George in act one exhibits, as well as the need for George in act two to recapture his passion and eventually to connect to those around him. It is a well thought out, cleanly acted and exceptionally sung portrayal of these two men who are very different on the surface, yet share many similar traits underneath.
Debra Qualtire is quite good as both Dot and Marie, two very different roles. Dot wants to force George out of the studio and to care less about his work to be a part of the world, while Marie wants her grandson to leave the nagging business side of the art world behind and get back to his work, which she knows is his passion. The hunger and desire that Qualtire brings to both parts culminates in a deeply touching delivery of "Move On" in which Dot inspires the 1980s George to leave his worries behind and, in a sense, continue on the path that his great-grandfather wasn't able to finish.
While most of the supporting cast play roles in both centuries almost as two dimensional as their counterparts in Seurat's painting, there are several stand outs. Laura Dooley does nice work as George's feisty and demanding mother, and Leah Klein is appropriately firm and direct as her nurse and also hilarious as an American tourist from the South. Lee Powers and Kathleen Berger are just right as the snooty, elitist and critical couple Jules and Yvonne, with Berger's scene with Qualtire, in which they both find they actually have much in common, receiving a skillful delivery. As Jules and Yvonne's condescending German servants, Jean-Paoul Clemente and Aimee Gajate are comically delicious, with good accents, and Andrew Lipman is striking as the disapproving, working class boatman.
Director Damon J. Bolling does much with the very small space. He uses several large white panels and a scrim to project both Seurat's painting of the park and the 1980s contemporary computerized homage to it. In doing so, Bolling has found an easy, simple solution that allows the action to unfold in front of the images while also making the painting come to life in a three-dimensional way. While it may be a modest solution it still achieves the end result of blending the actor with the painting and the past with the present. Bolling has clearly worked very closely with his actors to ensure the dramatic scenes have resonance and meaning and also that the musical moments effectively feed off the dialogue scenes, which is important, since several of the songs blend into and out of dialogue. However, the small Fountain Hills space provides both negative and positive aspects. While it doesn't clearly give Bolling the ability to portray the way the painting comes together, since there is so little space for George to navigate the individuals, the intimacy of the space does allow the audience to connect with the characters in a way you can't get from a larger venue.
Sondheim's score features endless variations of similar staccato notes and rhythms reminiscent to Seurat's brushstrokes, with short musical phrases to signify ideas or the characters George meets. Music director Jennifer Whiting achieves a rich sound from both the seven-piece orchestra and the cast, including a deeply moving version of "Sunday" that will most likely find you holding back tears.
Sunday in the Park with George is a musical that some people find difficult to like while others believe it to be Sondheim's masterpiece. It is also a musical that has many themes and will mean different things to different people, or more than one thing to an individual on repeated viewings. One thing is clear; while it is a show basically about the art of making art it is also a musical about the painful and joyful truths about life and how love and relationships help in the creation process. While Fountain Hills' staging may be fairly minimal, the result is an ultimately moving production that allows these themes and messages to come through clearly.
Order, design, composition, tension, balance, and harmony are the six words that Seurat repeats in the musical as his blueprint for his paintings, but he also states that when one has a blank page or a white canvas there are many possibilities. The true beauty of Sondheim and Lapine's musical is that George's six words and his belief that a blank slate holds unlimited possibilities aren't just applicable to a painting, or a piece of art, or even this production of this musical, but also are especially relevant to life itself.
Fountain Hills Theater's production of Sunday in the Park with George runs through November 22nd, 2015, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
George: Kyle Bennett