Pulitzer-winning musical at the Arden looks at art and the isolation of genius.
The Arden Theatre Company concludes the 2009-10 season on a high note with a polished production of James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical about art and the isolation of genius, Sunday in the Park with George.
Sunday is inspired by Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The huge canvas, familiar to most, depicts Parisians relaxing in a public park using pointillism, a technique in which tiny, dotlike brushstrokes of different colors are blended in the viewer’s mind instead of on the canvas.
The first act opens in Paris in the summer of 1884. Georges (Jeffrey Coon) is a fixture in the park, sketching its inhabitants for his masterpiece. Georges loves and needs order, painting things not as the messy, complex things they are, but as the perfect and simple things he wishes they would be. It's a trait that works less well in other aspects of his life. He works to the exclusion of everything else, including his charming, independent model and mistress Dot (Kristine Fraelich). Though Dot adores Georges, she’s eventually unwilling to play second fiddle to his art and leaves him for a kind baker, whose work is “easier to swallow.”
The theme of the price of prioritizing artistic vision over human connection is repeated throughout the musical, even as it shifts centuries. In Act II, the story skips to modern times. Georges’ great-grandson George (also played by Coon) is debuting his new installation piece, Chromolume #7. The art world now exclusively celebrates the new. Anything that isn’t revolutionary is passé, and, as George is on his seventh Chromolume, he fears his well of inspiration has run dry.
Director Terrence J. Nolen highlights the connection between Georges and George (aided by Coon’s capable dual performance), neither of whom feel capable of connecting with the people in their lives.
The link is well-illustrated by choreographer Niki Cousineau and sound/projection/video designer Jorge Cousineau’s Chromolume design, a notoriously awkward stumbling block for many productions. The Arden’s production takes advantage of 25 years’ worth of technology advances with a fascinating multimedia creation that mixes video projection, live action, computer graphics and Seurat’s painting. Dot, one of the largest and most central figures in “La Grande Jatte,” walks as a ghostlike video projection around the stage on a series of screens, themselves moving across the stage. She’s joined by other characters before they all disintegrate into dots, floating, then exploding into a dazzling blizzard of color, light, and movement. It is a visually thrilling moment, and a nice contrast to the stillness of “La Grande Jatte.”
Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s colorful, graceful costumes are lovely recreations of the iconic outfits in “La Grande Jatte,” and James Kronzer’s scenic design exploits the picture-frame effect of the theater’s proscenium arch stage to nudge us toward the connection between an empty stage and the artist’s blank canvas.
The Arden’s 1994 staging of Sunday was a dud, mostly due to a cast lacking the experience to tackle Sondheim’s precise, mathematical score. No such problem exists this time around. Fraelich sets the tone right out of the gate with an effortless performance of the show’s grueling opening number, “Sunday in the Park with George.” The almost sadistically challenging piece is handled with confidence and charm. Coon should have captured a Barrymore Award for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in the Arden’s 2007 staging of Sondheim’s Assassins , and he’s even better here. His rich baritone is confident in both roles.
If you prefer your musicals with splashy dance numbers, stick-in-your-head melodies and plenty of stand-up-and-cheer moments, Sunday is probably not going to tickle your fancy. But if you want to see a musical that wants you to use your head while you’re tapping your feet, then the Arden’s handsome production is just the ticket. ■
Sunday in the Park with George
Through July 4
40 N. Second St.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2