We contemporary critics are not exempt from the myriad musical theatre complexities that may have troubled audiences in 1984 when the groundbreaking Sunday In the Park with George opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. With its book by James Lapine and haunting music by Stephen Sondheim, there followed ten Tony Award nominations, but only two awards for design were granted. The music of Sondheim is not typically made up of catchy show tunes you hum on the way home, but nevertheless the show captured the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has enjoyed numerous productions in the years that followed.
Now Houston’s Masquerade Theatre has bravely taken on the difficult work, and with courageous direction from founder, Phillip Duggins, the company has considerable success.
The show derives its title from the classic post-Impressionist painting of Georges Seurat titled, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Painted from 1884-1886, the enormous work became Seurat’s most famous painting, and with its pointillism technique it ushered in a new era in art to be known as Neo-impressionism. The play’s unusual structure seems to echo that pattern as it brings forth a unique style in theatrical staging. The imagined action at first surrounds the period during which Seurat (splendidly played here by Luther Chakurian) is working on his painting’s design by doing sketches of his model, Dot (Kristina Sullivan), on the banks of the River Seine. While he sketches, the world he imagines begins to assemble itself on the stage with assorted bits of scenery dropping down into place from above. Characters in the painting begin to drift onstage with the arrival of a senile “Old Lady” (Allison Sumrall), and her kindly and patient nurse (Paula Smith). While stiffly posing for the artist, Dot launches into the show’s title song, and it must be said that Ms. Sullivan starts things off well with a lashing ferocity that evolves into an anthem of love full of longing. In what would be problematic throughout the evening, the pit orchestra was too loud, and at some points would compete with the singers, thus obscuring the lyrics.
When back in his studio there is a shadowy mystery of “Color and Light,” as Seurat, barely visible, works on his masterpiece on the upstage side of a thin scrim (representing the painting) that allows us to see the artist’s fanatical intensity as he paints. He endures the mockery and derision of his art from fellow artist, Jules (Adam W. Delka) and his wife Yvonne (Michelle Macicek). Their snobbery is on full display as they laughingly sing, “No Life.” When Dot becomes enamored of Louie, the local baker (Troy Menn), Miss Sullivan’s lovely voice conquers the wailing complexity of “Everybody Loves Louie,” with its merry melding of both song and conversation.
With the additional talents of Masquerade supporting players that included Michael J Ross, Laura Gray, Mark X. Laskowski, Libby Evans, Catherine Taylor, Kendrick Mitchell, and young 6th grader, Katie Chaisson, there is the usual vocal ensemble excellence from this company in numbers like “The Day Off,” reflecting on the Sunday freedom to gather in the park.
Chakurian delivered an electrifying and powerful rendition of “Finishing the Hat,” which, in my opinion, dwarfed the PBS telecast of Mandy Patinkin’s performance of that number during the recent birthday tribute to Mr. Sondheim. As Georges declares, “I’m trying to get through to something new, — something of my own,” we have to admire the kind of effort we should all be making in life.
When Georges and Dot duet for “We Do Not Belong Together,” there are some powerful moments from Sullivan, though the song itself seemed to this viewer to have an uneven quality about it. More satisfying was the richness of Georges’ duet of “Beautiful” with the Old Lady. Here, Miss Sumrall poignantly captures the distant sadness of a senile woman who can still remember the beauty of a world long ago. Chakurian brings great warmth to Georges’ effort to explain that, “all things are beautiful,” as he encourages her to see the world through his artists’ eyes. Act One closes beautifully with the gentle choreography of soothing and shifting cast tableaus that reflect the design of the painting. Better still, the pure elegance of the song, “Sunday,” is brought to perfection by the ensemble as the curtain falls.
As Act Two opens the characters are still in tableau as they mutter among themselves about being stuck in the painting. The clipped, rapid-fire lyrics of the song, It’s Hot Up Here,” are difficult to discern as we learn that Georges had died at age 31. Suddenly the action shifts us from the 19th century France of Seurat to the art world of 20th century America. It is 1984 and a special art museum showing is the place where Georges Seurat’s fictional great grandson, George, is to introduce his invention: a color and light projection machine. His grandmother, Marie (the daughter of Seurat and Dot) has joined him for the presentation. A chic museum cocktail party follows in celebration, and we hear a fine rendition of one of the show’s more recognizable tunes, “Putting It Together,” with Chakurian leading the ensemble as he demonstrates amazing skill and vocal power performing the song’s tongue-twisting lyrics. Marie (also played by Miss Sullivan) sings, “Children and Art,” about what she calls, “…the only two things worthwhile to leave behind when we leave this world.” Alas, much of the lyric was lost to the volume from the orchestra pit. But all is forgiven as young George finally visits the land of his great grandfather amid the exquisite full company reprise of “Sunday” that closes the show. Bravo!
Masquerade’s Sunday in the Park With George continues at the Zilkha Hall theatre in Houston’s Hobby Center through February 27th, with performances Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 and a 2:00 matinee on Sunday afternoon. For tickets & information call 713-TMT-9696 or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com