“I am not hiding behind my canvas—I am living through it!” Artist “George Seurat” futilely attempts to explain to his model, muse, and mistress “Dot” at a climatic point in “Sunday In The Park With George”– the latest musical conferral by “The Kentwood Players” at “The Westchester Playhouse” in Los Angeles California! Through their quarrel is stated the fundamental trouble, titillation, triumph and truth every Artist faces (not to mention Writers, Musicians, and other types of Performers,) at the outset of any creative undertaking. It also sums up the principal theme of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s groundbreaking “Musical Dramedy” which features some of the Master Composer’s most captivating music and lyrics, in conjunction with a comparably well-crafted book by Lapine. This riveting new production is Directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth, with Musical Direction by Mike Walker.
Loosely inspired by the life of French ‘Pointillist”, “George Seurat”, this fictionalized account revolves around how he came to devise and realize his most iconic ‘piéce de résistance’, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. In the process, this winner of the “Pulitzer Prize” for Drama and the “Drama Desk Award” for “Outstanding Musical” (in addition to multiple “Tony Awards”,) bracingly sheds light on every Artists’ aesthetic journey (warts and all!) Here, Seurat is represented as an intense, passionate and somewhat morose painter, who struggles, not only to conceive his paintings but also to maintain a stable relationship with his long-time paramour, “Dot”. Forgoing any formal overture or entr’acte, the opening descant, “Sunday In The Park With George” commences with a series of discordant piano “sting chords” interposed into “Dot’s” sung observations about her Artist-Lover and how it feels to be modeling for him (“God, it’s hot up here!” she pines.) Act One culminates with the stately brilliance of the score’s hallmark number, “Sunday” sung by the entire cast as his most famous painting literally ‘comes to life’ right before our eyes! The second act picks up immediately where the first left off with “Its Hot Up Here” as one-by-one the various “figures” immortalized on the living canvas begrudgingly relate their feelings about their likenesses and the Artist himself, before time jumps ahead a century. Connecting the first act’s happenings with the more ‘contemporary’ Art Scene, now the focus is on another “George”–Seurat and Dot’s Great Grandson, —also an Artist, also named “George” who, in 1984 is also struggling to find meaning in his own art as he debuts his latest ‘Installation’ with the help of his 98-year-old Grandmother, Seurat’s daughter “Marie”. At the show’s end, a sublime and satisfying reprise of “Sunday” has those in the painting once again ascending the stage to ‘honor’ the ‘spirit’ of the Legendary Post-Impressionist as it lives on through his descendant, bringing everything full-circle. (Indeed, among the few times the full company join together on stage, they enact near-symphonious ‘magic’–conveying both renditions of this already stunning anthem into something that’s nothing short of spine-tingling to hear and experience!)
Admittedly, “Sunday In The Park” is not at all an easy or simple show to produce (which is one reason it isn’t seen that often.) Thrillingly however, the “Kentwood Players” rise to all technical and textual demands (and challenges) and mightily surmount all of them! Ms. Weisbarth’s direction also sensibly keeps the inceptive scenes of Act One more or less on the light side, effectually ‘balancing’ the heavier elements that arise later in the act. What’s more–many musical sequences are punctuated with quick staccato notes that ingeniously ‘represent’ the points of color or “dots’ George is putting onto his canvas. Apart from simply giving us some unconventional melodies to listen to though, many of the songs luminously manage to capture the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) nuances of human emotion. The examples are numerous, such as the melancholy “When Things Were Beautiful”: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother” George assures his elderly parent; “Pretty is what changes. What the EYE arranges, is what is Beautiful!”) Then there’s the gentle sagacity of “Marie’s” “Children And Art”: “The child is so sweet and the girls are so rapturous, isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?” she breezes to her inventive progeny while gazing on the painting by their renowned Patriarch. Among all of these though, it’s the numbers exploring “George” and “Dot’s” crumbling relationship (even as his magnum-opus nears its completion,) where this acute perspicacity is felt most, as in the poignant “Finishing The Hat” as “George” divulges “The woman who is willing to wait’s not the kind that you want to find waiting…”, or the heart-wrenching “We Do Not Belong Together”: “No one is you George, there we agree—but no one is ME George! No one is ME!” “Dot” ultimately wails upon finally comprehending that the man she loves can never be the man she truly needs.
Over and above our two main protagonists, this is a true ‘ensemble endeavor’ in every sense of the word with everybody playing two roles—one in Paris of the 1880’s; the other in the more contemporary New York “Art Scene” of the mid 1980’s–and either era is loaded with rich characters. Likewise, if there’s one predominant ‘leitmotif’ (theatrically-speaking) at work here, it’s how (in the first act anyway) most of these ‘Dramatis Personae” have been essentially ‘paired off’, seldom appearing one without the other. Brian Pirnat stars as the Artist “George Seurat” AND his Great Grandson. This is an exceedingly tricky (dual) role to take on—particularly in Act One where, given that “George (Seurat)” as depicted, is emotionally ‘cut-off’, measured and detached, he’s largely relegated more to ‘reacting’ or being talked about, as opposed to being interacted ‘with’ or ‘talked to’–more a clinical ‘spectator’ than a sincere participant to the world swirling around him. Nonetheless, he does have a few occasions to really shine, and Pirnat definitely makes the most of them. His verses in “Color And Light” serve as a unique and even oddly compelling introduction to his capable vocal talents, as “George” obsessively—and via rapid-fire patter–starts to lay the groundwork (dot-by-dot) of his illustrious accomplishment—even talking to the fast-emerging “people” who will soon populate it.
Shortly following, he also excels with his stanzas of the comedic interlude, “The Day Off”, wherein he sings to a pair of large cut-outs of dogs! On top of affording a little unexpected depth to his portrayal, it also furnishes a little buoyancy and humor just before the story begins to get fairly heated. Subsequently, he conjures an abundance of eloquent affectivity with “Finishing The Hat”—a contemplation on the conundrum of balancing a ‘personal’ or ‘love’ life, with living a life devoted to fabricating Art. After Intermission, the younger, Twentieth Century “George” is a far better fit for Pirnat, allowing him to show-off a more nuanced ‘humanity’, as he reveals the kinds of insecurities and sensitivities the elder “George” kept too firmly obfuscated. Instead, he gives us a modern everyman who is lost, questioning, and vulnerable—qualities that are demonstrated to tremendous advantage in the pensive “Lesson #8”. Still severely missing his recently deceased ‘Gran’, the latter-day “George”, at last pays a visit to the present-day Island of “La Grande Jatte” (a trip they were to take together.) Prior to this, he also exhibits energy and fluidity with the near-manic “Art Isn’t Easy” as this “George” pensively reminds us: “A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head; if no one gets to see it then it’s as good as dead!”
As his long time “Mistress” “Dot”—and her geriatric daughter, “Marie”, Rachel Berman displays an intrinsic likability and wit–plus a superior soprano voice to boot! More than that, she also has impeccable phrasing and a clarion delivery—so vital for this role when taking into consideration all the tongue-twisting rhythmic ‘gymnastics’ Composer Sondheim has infused into it. At the same time, these house some pretty pithy or piquant sentiments: “George likes to be alone,” “Dot” asserts as she casually powders herself at her vanity mirror–vaguely reminiscent of “Woman Powdering Herself” (1889–one of Seurat’s other distinguished works); “And he never tells me his dreams…George has many secrets.” Berman strikes musical gold, singing out to the Audience and filling the auditorium, with “Everybody Loves Louis” sung in praise of the man our “Dot” may not care for as much as the enigmatic Painter, but who will give her some semblance of stability: “We lose things; and then we choose things, and there are ‘Louis’s’ and there are ‘George’s’ (…well, ‘Louis’s’ and ‘George’—but George has ‘George’, and I need someone—Louis!”) Building to a marvelous crescendo, “Dot” ultimately ‘faces off’ against “George”– conspicuous that she is now “in the family way”! This leads into her absolutely finest moment with the heart-wrenching “We Do Not Belong Together”—an impassioned diatribe against “George’s” saturnine and emotionally-stulted nature, aimed square at him rather than ‘to’ him, while he quietly implodes. In the second half, she doubles as the now declining and wheelchair bound “Marie” but here too, she brings out the endearing geniality of this spry and sprightly nonagenarian, investing her with a refreshing warmth and vitality, in lieu of merely giving us another stereotype of what people ‘think’ someone of an advanced-age should act like. In this guise, Berman scores still again with the dreamy and soulful, “Children And Art” in which “Marie”, gazing at the picture her own late mother talked so much about, counsels her Grandson, “This is our family, this is the lot; after I go this is all that you’ve got…” Before the show’s completion, she re-appears as “Dot”—now a wise, confident, and self-possessed woman who provides some much-needed guidance and support for her existentially suffering scion right when he needs it most: “Stop worrying if your ‘vision’ is new…let others make that decision–they usually do; you keep moving on.”
Notable support is also offered by Janet Krajeski—who, herself stands out as Seurat’s crotchety old Mother finding substantial truth and poignancy in the role. Beyond simply throwing in an off-handed comedic line now and again, Krajeski’s most touching and bittersweet moment occurs as part of “When Things Were Beautiful”, a majestic duet with Pirnat toward the close of the first act, as mother and son reflect on the too-soon changes that Paris (and by extension, the World) seems to be undergoing as symbolized by the impending construction of the “Eiffel Tower”: “Oh Georgie, how I long for the old view…” she concludes wistfully. Count this one yet another remarkable inclusion Sondheim’s magnetic score boasts, and true to the material, they elevate it into a bona-fide Act One Highlight!
Post intermission, Krajeski also impresses as the bloviating Art Critic “Blair Daniels”–opining that she’d expected more from the younger “George” this time around: “Chromolume number seven?! I was hoping it would be a series of three—four at the most!” Don Schlossman also brings a laudable dose of “attitude” to “Jules”–a fittingly ‘full of himself’ rival (and from what clues we can ascertain, more ‘successful’) Artist, while right beside him most of the time is Dana Weisman as “Yvonne”, his wife (who is similarly ‘proper’ and sanctimonious as befitting her overstated and aggrandized social “station”.) Their joint-chanson, “No Life” is a terrific (if sarcastic) introduction to these two key figures early on. Throughout the run, the role of their young daughter, “Louise” will be shared by Savannah Fischer and Rikki Walker who, on opening weekend enjoyed a few lighthearted moments in the big “Day Off Number”, as well as re-joining together for the final full-cast reprise of “Sunday”.
As “Jules” and “Yvonne’s” Teutonic Butler, “Franz”, along with “Freida”, his wife (and their Maid,) Roy Okida and Jennifer Sperry both strike a nice balance between gleaning the maximum amount of humor–and even absurdity from these two, while never going so overboard with either of their ‘characterizations’ (nor their broad accents) that they become absurd themselves. Moreover, Vincent Paz-Macareno also renders two magnificently differing personalities—initially, as the sullen one-eyed “Boatman”, whose likeness the elder “George” places prominently into his painting: “One eye—no illusions—that you get with two! One for what is true—one for what suits you! Draw your wrong conclusions—all you ‘Artists do! I see what is true!” Then, he’s “Charles Redmond” a good-natured Art Enthusiast and Benefactor from Texas. Through these three ‘commoners’ in 1884 though, we’re given a passing glimpse into the more ‘working class’ denizens of the park (and their attitudes,) that the real Seurat would have been only too familiar with. Making commendable contributions as well, are Genevieve Marino as “Celeste #1”, and Fiona Okida as “Celeste #2”–a pair of identically-monikered “Shop Girls” and “Frenemies”, who aren’t above a little gossip, backbiting, and contention toward each other—especially when it comes to winning the affection of a peculiar ‘duo’ of “Soldiers”: Celeste #2: “You can have the other one”; Celeste #1: “I don’t want the other one!”, Celeste #2: “I don’t want the other one either!” (the “other” ‘Man in Uniform’ they’re referring to is played by an oversized cut-out, while his more dashing real-life counterpart is stalwartly taken on by Alex Norwick.) Both ladies have exceptionally strong voices which come through heartily in what few “group” exploits there are, but most delightfully during the sumptuous choral presentations of “Sunday”.
Way too often, the most over-looked aspect of a musical are those who genuinely ‘supply’ the ‘music’; happily though, the team at “The Westchester Playhouse” astutely appreciated how (and expressly for this musical,) the live seven-piece orchestra (who are situated in the off-stage wing-space) bring about the proper ‘grandeur’ the show positively requires. After all, the need for such lush orchestrations are apparent immediately as “George” veritably “sets’ the stage—transforming it from “a blank page” into the park that will play such a huge part in the goings-on to follow. Frequently the numbers are composed to play like a pronounced string quartet with strong percussion embellishment—while others favor an equally robust woodwind component, all of which instill an invigorating touch of ornateness and splendor. Meanwhile, the costumes by Ruth Jackson reference, but never wholly ‘re-create’ those seen in the acclaimed painting. “Dot’s” ‘opening’ dress is also something to behold, as she “steps out” of it for her inner-soliloquy in the midst of the titular number, “Sunday In The Park With George”. Interestingly too, the set design by Jim Crawford and Doug Carlson relies heavily on ‘projections’ against the rear-stage backdrop, which allows each scene to fade effortlessly into one another as needed. In fact, over the course of the Cocktail reception that essentially ‘launches’ Act Two, the entire scene is set against an expansive shot of Seurat’s appellative masterpiece, while at another point, a background photo of the actual “Grande Jatte” as it appears today, is incorporated to help ‘set’ the latter scenes. For that matter, the one element that, in this instance, seems to obtain an increased resonance is Bruce Starret’s dazzling lighting designs. His multicolored bits and drabs of illumination originally take center-stage with the first act’s “Color And Light”, at which point they slowly dissolve into the various hues “George” is singing about as he goes about his work tucked inside his studio; at the same time “Dot” is surrounded in vivacious shades of Pink, Blue, Green and Violet as she sits ruminating at her mirror nearby. Yet it’s the “Chromolume” installment (when the action transfers to 1984,) that is this production’s true crowning glory as it “Twinkles and Shimmers and Buzzes” right after Intermission!
“Design, Composition, Balance, Light…and Harmony”: See “The Kentwood Players” “Bring order to the whole” now at “The Westchester Playhouse” with this highly entertaining, always engrossing ‘Masterstroke’ of a show! Having officially opened on Friday, March 15th, “Sunday In The Park With George” will play through Saturday, April 20th, 2019 at “The Westchester Playhouse”, located at 8301 Hindry Avenue in the Westchester area of Southern California. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. To purchase tickets, email the box-office at email@example.com or call (310) 645-5156 during box-office hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 4:00 PM–7:00 PM. Tickets are also available on-line by logging onto: www.kentwoodplayers.org. (Special Group rates are available for parties of 10 or more, while discounts are also offered for Seniors and Students.)
Production Stills by Shari Barrett, Courtesy Of “The Kentwood Players”; Special Thanks To Alison Boole, Susan Goldman Weisbarth, Mike Walker, Shari Barrett, Gail Bernardi, Margie Bates And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Kentwood Players” 2019 Production Of “Sunday In The Park With George” For Making This Story Possible.