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Burning Coal Theatre Company concludes its eighteenth season with a sensational musical that examines what makes an artist, Sunday in the Park with George. Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Sunday looks at the French artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891), during the period that he created his masterwork, "A Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grande Jatte." As the play touches on, Seurat became known for painting light and color in a series of dots, which combine in the viewer’s eyes to create Seurat’s images. "A Sunday Afternoon…" was the first major work of Seurat’s that made this use of color and light known; it was not a popular means of painting during Seurat’s time. A copy of the painting is on display in Burning Coal’s lobby at the Murphey School. It is interesting to view the painting before the production, which brings to life the people in the painting that made up Seurat’s world, and then see how that view has been changed and richened at intermission.
Sondheim and Lapine have created a sensational and dynamic means of relaying the feeling and aesthetic of the painting to the audience – aurally as well as visually. As the dotted people who populate the artist’s portrait come alive, they comment on the life and times of a young man obsessed with his artistic calling. The enervating, rapid-fire lyrics make for a dynamic and entertaining soundtrack.
Musical director Christian Stahr leads a trio of piano, cello, and violin to support what can only be described as a difficult libretto of staccato lyrics and dynamic accompaniment. The difficulty of the score means that this cast must work with precision and exceedingly fine control to master these songs that entertain us so well. Under the direction of Jerome Davis, Burning Coal’s cast of fifteen works together as a true ensemble to recreate a painting that embodies the Impressionist movement.
As the play opens, we see Georges (Tyler Graeper) as he is attempting to sketch his ladylove, Dot (Natalie Reder), on a bright Sunday morning on an island in the Seine. Georges is a demanding artist and constantly upbraids Dot on how to stand, where to look, and how to keep still. He is teaching her to concentrate, a concept that is foreign to her. Her song, “Sunday in the Park with George,” relays to us her feelings for her lover, his skills as a painter, and his demanding needs as a man and an artist.
Dot is not with Seurat long; his demands drive her away and she takes up with the local baker, Louis (Fred Corlett), but not before she becomes laden with Seurat’s child. The daughter, Marie, and her adoptive father also become members of the famous painting. In fact, every member of the cast, save Seurat himself, represents a figure in the painting.
Act II sets up yet another dimension of the play by jumping forward to the modern day – well, the 1980s. This done, each actor becomes another character that interacts with this act’s artist, an American named George who (as the playwrights would have it) is a descendant of Seurat. The overlapping that occurs with modern characters and sentiments from the past adds a superb touch, and gives another take on the life and demands of being an artist.
The essence of the play is the relationship between Georges and Dot, a complicated arrangement that transcends the timeline between Seurat’s time and now. Reder as Dot was precious, with a darling presentation and a superb singing voice. The love that Dot feels for Georges was readily apparent in Reder, making us feel a loss at the characters’ separation. Graeper relayed to us both Georges’ needs and his desire to succeed to become a better painter. Graeper, who also commands a fine singing voice, seems to have mastered Sondheim’s difficult libretto. His well-controlled asides that are built into, for example, Act II’s “Putting It Together,” were exciting to listen to as he explained what it is like to try and build art in our modern times. His control was masterful, and his complex relationship with Dot was exceptionally portrayed, making the whole play more real to us, the viewers. These two as the leads of Sunday spearheaded a fine contingent of characters and voices, and the whole cast moved the play along divinely.
Sunday in the Park with George relies not so much on set design as it does on staging; as the work progresses, we begin to see just how the painter positions and recreates his charges in this painting. With very few set pieces and some truly precise and timely costumes – designed by Bonnie Raddatz – director Davis has built Seurat’s painting just as Sondheim and Lapine built the play. The control and dynamic staging make Sunday a tremendous treat, which tests the abilities of these actors but gives the audience a truly memorable evening. And just as Seurat must control his own light and shade, this set also has a superb lighting design by Ed Intemann. Especially in the second act, the lights become a part of the artist’s vision, and add yet another dimension to this complex program.
Sunday in the Park with George is a musical view into another world, one in which art is primary and people are secondary to a cause. We see the passion and drive of a man obsessed with his art, and how that obsession controls his short life. We come to see this art as Seurat himself might have seen it, and we learn what it is that makes an artist. Burning Coal has created Sunday with superb staging, a talented and precise ensemble cast, and some truly memorable music. If you enjoy a good musical, but especially if you are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, you owe it to yourself to see this production. Its precision and exuberance will delight you.
Sunday in the Park with George continues through Sunday, May 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.