Sunday in the Park With George

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 2, 2009

Sunday in the Park With George

Sunday in the Park with George is an ambitious work. Not only do Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) address the highly personal process of creating art, they explore the sacrifices one makes in gaining professional, artistic and commercial success in its development.

The first act of this 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning musical dramatizes a mostly fictional account of 19th century French painter Georges Seurat (Jeremy Cohn) as he creates his most famous painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Seurat is experimenting feverishly with a new technique, now known as pointillism, and his contemporaries feel he is wasting his talent in painting these tiny dots of color. Meanwhile, his mistress, and aptly-named muse, Dot (the fantastic Stephanie Herman), longs for affection from the suffering artist. The first act concludes with one of Sondheim's most stirring numbers, "Sunday," as the series of colorful characters introduced to us in act one form a tableau of Seurat's celebrated painting.

The second act takes a sharp shift in tone, placing the action in the early 1980s. Georges and Dot's great-grandson, a modern sculptor who also paints with light, is facing the same internal struggles as his great grandfather -- but with the added pressure of gaining backers and grant money to support his expensive electronic medium. And, while Seurat struggled to gain acceptance with his art (he never sold a painting), George wants to break free from his overwhelming success to create something new.

Obviously, this is not your typical musical comedy. In addition to the unique subject matter, Sondheim's score is complex, with recurring staccato motifs to indicate Seurat's revolutionary technique. This requires an added effort on the audience's behalf to listen to the rapid fire lyrics, particularly in the first and second act openers. In other words, you won't walk away humming any tunes (unless you're a fan of the score - which I am).

Most importantly, it requires a cast led by a director who can handle the difficult material. Village Players small-scale production works hard, and in many ways, succeeds. To provide some context around this review, I would classify this production as upper-tier civic theatre.

With a seasoned voice, strong presence and touching line readings, Stephanie Herman as Dot is a true standout.

Kevin Long's direction gladly refrains from any flashy gimmicks, with some clever staging ideas used in the second act featured number, "Putting it Together." In addition, he's assembled a spirited cast.

Most notably, Herman as Dot (and the elderly Marie in the second half) rises above the overall quality of this production. Anyone who is familiar with Sunday has a hard time shaking Bernadette Peters, who originated the role, from their mind. With a seasoned voice, strong presence and touching line readings, Herman made me rediscover Dot. My only quibble is that she wouldn't push so hard during "We Do Not Belong Together" -- Dot's tearful final plea to the emotionally-detached Seurat. In the second act, she provides a touching portrait of her first act counterpart's aging ancestor.

Sadly the casting of the title character is a misstep for me. As Georges/George, I applaud Cohn in his efforts. These are extremely difficult roles, and he's done his homework. However, Cohn seems to be channeling Mandy Patinkin in voice and style too much for my taste. In addition, Cohn reads far too young for the role. That said, it's an admirable turn for this young actor. Unfortunately, next to Herman's powerful performance, Cohn is diminished.

Additional standouts in a large cast include Andriana Pachella and Frieda/Betty, Patrick Byrnes as Franz/Dennis and Brittany Townsley and Lara Mainier as the bickering Celestes.

Music direction by Kimberly Joy Widmer is generally good, with the chorus work really on point. However, I do wish Michael Starobin's orchestrations weren't reduced to a tinny, if well-played, keyboard. (Percussion and woodwind were listed as well, but I rarely heard them). The set design was appropriate, featuring many of Seurat's works displayed around the stage, and the costume design was hit (Dot's dresses and bustier) and miss (Yvonne's ridiculously large top hat wrapped in gauze).

Village Players is delivering a well-realized, if slightly uneven, production of this rarely produced masterpiece. If you're a fan of Sondheim, I would recommend checking it out.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through September 20, 2009. Fridays and Saturdays are at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays are at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $28 for General Admission, $22 for 65 or older/18 or younger. Reservations can be made by phone at Village Players Box Office Hotline 866-764-1010, in person, or online at

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at