Matthew Reddin

“Sunday in the Park” with Bill Theisen

Stephen Sondheim's musical about Seurat's great painting and a self-doubting artist of a later generation opens at the Skylight.

By - May 17th, 2012 04:00 am

“Sunday in the Park with George” requires collaboration from across the Skylight cast and crew. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

Painters, by and large, work alone in their studios. Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a show about painter Georges Seurat’s epic pointillist painting and a later painter named George, requires a team. The Skylight Music Theatre’s team appears to be working in perfect harmony.

Artistic director Bill Theisen is leading the charge. He is responsible for bringing Sunday to the Skylight. Theisen’s wanted to stage the show here ever since he saw the original Broadway production in 1984, but hasn’t been able to cross it off his to-do list until now, at the end of his reign at the Skylight.

“I’m really thrilled I was able to have it done during my tenure,” Theisen said.

The musical, one of only eight to win a Pulitzer Prize, tells two parallel stories. The first act describes Georges Seurat painting his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The second act’s depicts Seurat’s descendant, George, a modern artist struggling to find meaning in his work. While these narratives are thematically linked, Theisen said he worked to give each act a distinct tone.

“I thought it was important to try and get that refinement in Seurat’s time … so we can really feel the difference later,” Theisen said, adding that the feeling of those two coming together is “magical” – but only with the right amount of contrast.

One of the 15 actors responsible for providing that contrast is Sean Allan Krill, who plays both Georges.

Krill has been in Sunday before, in Chicago in 2002. He played the Soldier and understudied George. But he said tackling George from the beginning was a different, powerful experience.

“George is just this gauntlet of a role … it’s a nonstop job,” Krill said.

Krill said his characters come with their own set of contrasts. While Georges Seurat is a brilliant, driven artist who just can’t get anyone else to understand his work, George has earned critical appreciation but lacks the confidence of his ancestor. But they share a trait that speaks to larger themes: Their passion for their art that keeps them from connecting with the people around them.

“This show is about realizing the only way to anchor yourself is to anchor yourself to the people around you,” Krill said.

Ironically, Krill said one of his favorite things about performing in Sunday is the connection the show builds among performers.

“The show just fosters this camaraderie among the cast,” Krill said. “You just feel like you’re all wallowing in the beauty of the show.”

Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is the inspiration for both the musical and its visual design.

While much of that beauty is musical, a play about visual artists needs to look good too. Enter set designer Van Santvoord, a long-time contributor to the Skylight who’s returning for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when he designed the sets for Theisen’s “Figaro Stories”: The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.

Santvoord said he found Theisen to have a well-developed idea of the show’s visual concept: simple, to counterbalance the textural, detailed costumes of its characters.

“Bill and I were pretty confident that the flow of the show was going to work,” Santvoord said.

With Sunday, Santvoord faced the unique challenge of designing for two radically different acts. The first is far more complex; trees must fly on and off of 3-D recreations of Seurat paintings, notably three different versions of A Sunday Afternoon painted onto scrims. Santvoord said that Skylight painter Carrie Dahl is absolutely essential to the design’s success.

“I’m truly blessed to have Carrie,” Santvoord said. “It’s really her show.”

Santvoord, who lives in New York, he said he enjoyed working with the Skylight in the past because of the professionalism of its musicians.

“I’ve heard (recordings of) Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters … In my opinion, these two (Krill and co-star Alison Mary Forbes) could blow them out of the water.”

Theisen said this marks the first time a professional Milwaukee theater company has staged a full production of Sunday. It’s a lapse that allows him to put his own spin on the show. He advocates spending less time studying details and more examining the big picture.

“If you’re able to just take a moment to stand back and look at life … you can really get a new sense of perspective,” Theisen said. “We don’t do that often enough.”

The Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Sunday in the Park with George runs May 18 through June 10. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65.50, and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight online box office.

For more insight into the show, check out this Skylight video of Bill Theisen and the cast discussing Sunday during rehearsals.

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