Skylight’s “Sunday in the Park with George” delights
Stephen Sondheim's musical brings Seurat's pointillist masterpiece to life.
The first half of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, which the Skylight Music Theatre opened Friday, unfolds like series of sketches. We accompany Georges Seurat and his mistress/model, Dot, as they encounter such characters as the artist’s mother and her nurse, a salty sailor, and rival artist Jules and his wife. These characters appear Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. But in Sondheim’s musical, they have more dimensions: conflicts, and a tangled web of love lives and affairs.
But Seurat, he’s orderly. He stays above it all, detached and impervious, even to Dot, whom he loves. Georges is cool, reticent blue, while Dot is bright, vivacious red. Humor, drama, and lightly bawdy insinuations bubble up between the two. We meet them in the spirited opening title song. Dot, brought to life by Alison Mary Forbes, is robust, loving and ultimately independent.
George, charismatically played by Sean Allan Krill, is conflicted, introspective, and even a bit crazy at times, as in the song “The Day Off.” His role plays to the convention of the misunderstood genius who endures the barbs and condescension of those who doubt that artists do “real work.” He sings as he paints, staccato notes in rhythm with the meticulous marks of paint on canvas.
Van Santvoord’s set alternates between the expansive park of La Grande Jatte, an Parisian island in the Seine river, and George’s sparse studio, where he works on the luminous painting. With the extravaganza, “Sunday,” the assembled cast of characters move among the shifting trees of the park, literally bringing the composition to life.
Act 2 leaps ahead 100 years, to the 1980s, and to the Art Institute of Chicago, where A Sunday on La Grande Jatte resides. The humorously antagonistic laments of the assembled figures in picture remind us that indeed, these were real people from a time long ago, people Seurat actually did study and draw during years of preparation and work on this painting.
We drift outside the static world of the canvas and into the art world milieu, becoming bystanders to the modern problems artists face. Krill changes from Georges to George, Seurat’s fictional great-grandson. He handles transformation in character is adroitly. This George plays the art game more skillfully than his famous ancestor, yet retains some of the hereditary idealism along with his ambition.
Under the stage and musical direction of Bill Theisen and Richard Carsey, Sunday in the Park with George makes for a highly entertaining evening. The libretto and storyline take some notable departures from art history, but include some true details of Seurat’s life and times. It is fictionalized fact, but ultimately as musical theater, it is a visual and auditory delight.
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.