Story: George, indeed, is in the park throughout this two-act musical. In the first act, we observe 19th century French painter Georges Seurat, a post-Impressionist and father of the technique known as pointillism, working on his towering masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, an exhaustive and extraordinary creation that consumed his life from 1884 to 1886. Seurat’s obsession with blending science and art motivated his theory that the human eye would meld disparate dots of hues together on a canvas to create the illusion of customary colors. He called this approach a ‘language’ utilizing perception and optical laws and the use of colors on his palette, all collectively referred to by Seurat as chromoluminarism.
Seurat’s brilliance results in a breathtaking painting, one he calls at first “white, a blank page or canvas full of possibilities.” It also drives a wedge between him and the people who populate his work, including his lover Dot, his mother, his snooty artist friend Jules and the rest of the diverse Parisian individuals who frequent the elegant city park on their weekly day of leisure. Act I ends with Seurat’s intellect reining in his emotions to coalesce his varied subjects into a singular artistic achievement. A century later, his great-grandson struggles with his own artistic visions, a stagnating series of color and light machines he terms chromolumes. When 20th century George visits the inspirational land of his ancestor, however, he mystically experiences the vibrancy of the elder Seurat’s subjects.
Highlights: This towering achievement by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 while inexplicably garnering just two Tony Awards. The sheer brilliance of the concept itself, whereby Sondheim and Lapine craft a bold and difficult musical that explores the curiosity that propels the creative process of an artistic genius such as Seurat, is dazzling on several levels. Most importantly, the current production at The Rep engineered by director Rob Ruggiero fully realizes that magnificence in a breathtaking, stunning and deeply moving interpretation of both the musical and the painting that inspired it.
Other Info: Sondheim and Lapine designed the first act so that essentially it is self-contained, as evidenced by its resounding finale in which Seurat clinically commands his models to meld into the genius of his completed work. It also, however, serves as a sturdy bridge to the less profound but nonetheless compelling second act, which reminds us of the eternal reach of true art and human expression across generations. Under Ruggiero’s disciplined and focused guidance, both acts realize their potential despite their seemingly uneven appearance.
Technically, The Rep’s rendition melds a remarkable scenic design conceived by Adrian Jones that is a marvel in its own right, richly illuminated by John Lasiter’s sweeping lighting design that unveils a prism of colors of its own to underscore Jones’ complex craftsmanship. Somehow, a series of panels that enter and exit that originally ‘bare’ canvas flesh out the depth and dimension of Seurat’s painting, even as a working version of his masterpiece back in his studio is unveiled at the rear of the stage. It’s extremely impressive, both in its appearance and in the way it cleverly blends performers into the landscape.
Those sundry players are elegantly adorned with Alejo Vietti’s handsome, 19th century apparel in Act I, which make the rather mundane appearance of 20th century styles in Act II pale in comparison. Special appreciation goes to choreographer Ralph Perkins, whose deft movements smoothly integrate the cast into a living, breathing rendition of Seurat’s classic canvas, with Michael Hooker’s unobtrusive sound design adding to the effect.
Musical director F. Wade Russo seamlessly conducts a smart combo that handles Sondheim’s incredibly complex notes offstage, including concertmaster/violinist Alison Rolf, violinist/violist Tova Braitberg, cellist Marcia Mann, French horn player Nancy Schick, Michael Buerk on reeds and Henry Palkes at the keyboard.
The engaging cast contributes a collection of exhilarating performances, led by the impressive Ron Bohmer in the dual roles of the two Georges. As the elder Seurat, he is powerful in his commitment to his art but also tragic in his inability to relate to the frustrated Dot, his oppressive mother and others. It’s a sweeping and commanding performance that overwhelms the unsure and unsteady 20th century descendant, whom Bohmer also portrays convincingly.
Nearly everyone plays multiple roles, led by a wonderful portrayal of Dot by Erin Davie, who doubles as Dot’s and George’s aged daughter in the second act. Davie and Bohmer both handle Sondheim’s convoluted, complex tunes with panache, whether Davie blithely introducing us to the show with the opening title number, the clever interplay of Color and Light or the poignant piece, We Do Not Belong Together.
The excellent ensemble includes St. Louis favorites Zoe Vonder Haar as the painter’s effete mother and a snooty art critic, Kari Ely as the mother’s intelligent nurse and also a wealthy art patron and Whit Reichert as an affable American tourist and a genial art museum PR chief. Chris Hietikko is the jealous artist Jules, Deanne Lorette is his dutiful wife and Steve French is a surly boatman and the trusted technician friend in Act II.
Jamie LaVerdiere plays Jules’ hot-blooded coachman Franz, Rebecca Watson is his long-suffering wife Frieda and Meggie Cansler is a 19th century shop girl and the 20th century George’s ex-wife Elaine and confidante to Marie. Jacob Lacopo, Jordan Parente, Charlie Ingram, Audrey Rae McHale, Abbey Friedmann, Mark Emerson, Sean Montgomery and Nyssa Duchow round out the accomplished cast.
Sunday in the Park with George is rarely performed (a marvelous production by New Line Theatre several years ago was perhaps the most recent local presentation). The Rep’s profound interpretation is a resounding triumph on many levels and one that resonates long after the final curtain.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 29
Tickets: From $19; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.