Review: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ at City Theater Company

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Wilmington’s City Theater Company presents Sunday in the Park with George like you’ve never seen it before, in an original deconstruction conceived by Co-Directors Michael Gray and Tom Shade. But if you haven’t seen if before, and aren’t familiar with the story or the real painting on which it’s based, it’s best to know before you go, so that you will be better prepared to follow the current confusing conceit. With that said, nothing can prepare you for some of the excellent performances you’ll see and the outstanding vocals you’ll hear.

The cast. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
The cast. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

Inspired by French painter Georges Seurat’s Pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago), the award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) – which made its Broadway debut in 1984 (the 100th anniversary of the painting’s completion in 1884) – considers the personal, social, and professional challenges an artist faces in a life driven by the need to create, and to bring structure, harmony, and beauty to a chaotic, quarrelsome, and critical world. Transitioning from 19th-century Paris to 20th-century Chicago, Act I weaves a fictional tale about the eponymous artist’s working method, relationships, and public reception, and the lives of the figures he painted, while Act II imagines an invented descendant – also an artist named George – experiencing similar struggles in the post-modern art world, from which he looks back to his predecessors for affirmation.

CTC’s production frames the story in the context of the creative process of theater artists developing a show – a device that only serves to detract from the already inherent message. A few words in the curtain speech, explaining that the theme applies to artists of all genres, not just to the painter, would have sufficed, rather than distracting the audience with such deviations as the actors assembling in a dark space and beginning the performance with a script-in-hand table read, musicians then walking across the intimate venue one by one to form the live orchestra, the artist as “director” periodically sitting in the audience to appraise the show and climbing a ladder to make adjustments to the lighting, and cast members passing around photographs of Seurat’s painting and related images in the second act (which is far too late for those unfamiliar with the pivotal artwork to have understood the preceding visual references to it in the actors’ poses and tableaux vivants) – all of which break the flow of the narrative and add to the confusion of the staging (with the audience seated around all four sides, making a uniform frontal view of the “living pictures” impossible).

The minimal design of the production (and the absence of the usual background image or projection of the Seurat) is consistent with the theatrical concept, using a movable ladder, table, work cart, chairs, and platforms, and squares of blocking tape on a bare stage (set by Vicki Neal and Richard Kendrick). Lighting (also by Neal and Kendrick) and present-day costumes (by Kerry Kristine McElrone and Lauren Peters) also follow the idea of creating from a proverbial “blank canvas,” with an increasing array of color added to the initial monochrome palette (of total blackness or white lights, and mostly grey-and-white garb) as the work is completed and the musical comes to life.

Brendan Sheehan and Jenna Kuerzi. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
Brendan Sheehan and Jenna Kuerzi. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

What truly brings CTC’s conceptual production to life are the talented lead actors Brendan Sheehan as the two Georges and Jenna Kuerzi as Dot and Marie (the elder’s mistress/model in Act I, and their now-elderly daughter in Act II), who impressively deliver Lapine’s distinct characterizations and master Sondheim’s demanding score. Sheehan captures the obsessive dedication of George to his art, his defiant understanding that he doesn’t paint for anyone else’s approval, and his emotional recognition that he chooses his art over his family. He is focused and intense as he moves around the stage, sizing up his artistic subjects with the utmost concentration and forsaking his love and unborn child with isolating self-awareness. Kuerzi is impatient and frustrated as the young Dot, in love with the artist, but craving the attention and devotion he is incapable of giving her, and her fully empathetic portrayal of the aged wheelchair-bound Marie – frail and shaking, yet resolute in her beliefs and amusing in her comments – is absolutely irresistible. Both, in their solos and duets, demonstrate the exceptional range and control required for the composer’s signature songs, filled with his unconventional shifts in tempo and tone. Her powerhouse vocals on “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Everybody Loves Louis,” and “Children and Art,” his expressive renditions of “Finishing the Hat,” “Lesson #8,” and the silly “The Dog Song,” and their well-matched pairing on “Color and Light,” “Move On,” and the heartrending “We Do Not Belong Together” (accompanied by a talented orchestra featuring Steven Zimmerman, Linda Heckert, Carolyn Hendrix, John T. Bever, and Music Director Christopher Tolomeo, who also portrays Dot’s husband Louis) are superb.

Among the standouts in the supporting cast are Paul McElwee as the condescending and critical art snobs Jules (Act I) and Bob Greenberg (Act II), and Patrick O’Hara in his three cross-gender roles as the Nurse, Harriet Pawling, and the hilarious southern tourist Mrs., who hates everything about Paris except the pastries (partnered by George Tietze’s equally laughable Mr.). Rounding out the ensemble are Layla Baynes, Tonya Baynes, Dylan Geringer, Jeff Hunsicker, Mary Catherine Kelley, Kerry Kristine McElrone, Dominic Santos, and Grace Tarves, who play the figures-come-to-life from Seurat’s painting, each complaining that “It’s Hot Up Here” from inside the canvas, and providing rich harmonies on “Sunday,” the beautiful finale to both acts.

As with all art, and especially with such experimental deconstructions as City Theater Company’s Sunday in the Park with George, the viewer’s response is subjective; but there is no disputing the star quality of the lead actors and their commanding voices.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

Sunday in the Park with George plays through Saturday, December 16, 2017, at City Theater Company, performing at The Black Box at Opera Delaware Studios – 4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 220-8285, or
purchase them online.