Emily Lopez and Will Blum in "Sunday in the Park with George." Photo courtesy of CCAE Theatricals
There. I’ve finally seen “Sunday in the Park with George.” Nearly 40 years after it opened. My personal Sondheim holy grail. You can’t blame me. The bio-musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat has only been produced in San Diego County once before – that was when the much-missed ion theatre staged it seven years ago at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Sorry I missed that. “Sunday,” which has enjoyed a couple of Broadway revivals, too, never seemed to be having one when I was in New York.
So here it is in 2023, produced by the thriving CCAE Theatricals company at the California Center for the Arts’ Center Theater in Escondido. T.J. Dawson directs a lush “Sunday in the Park with George” that stars Will Blum, a charming Broadway veteran of “Beetlejuice,” “Grease” and “The Book of Mormon.” Opposite him – and superb as Seurat’s model, Dot (apparent pointillism pun there) – is Emily Lopez, who is just as touching as great-grandson George’s 98-year-old grandmother Marie in the musical’s awkward and somewhat desultory second act.
Written by James Lapine with Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, “Sunday in the Park with George” is eccentric as “Broadway musicals” go. Sondheim eschews big power ballads and hummable novelties in favor of a libretto mostly characterized by short, repetitive bursts of song – not unlike the way in which a pointillist artist might meticulously create. Its sweeping “Sunday,” which closes both acts of the show, is more conventional, and with the company in full voice outright gorgeous. Otherwise the likes of “Finishing the Hat” and “Children and Art” are Sondheim at his most playful.
All is revealing of Seurat, depicted as a man so obsessed with his singular artistic inspiration and attention to detail that he allowed Dot’s love to go unrequited. Their numbers “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On” speak to this in wrenching fashion.
“Sunday in the Park with George” requires an audience’s patience. It moves along slowly and at times in what seems like fits and starts – especially in the first act. There really are just two fully drawn characters, George and Dot. (You could argue George’s mother, I suppose). The rest are figures that live forever in Seurat’s painting that inspired this musical: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.” The nurse. The cook. The baker. The man with a horn. The soldier and his cardboard likeness. The woman with the baby carriage.
If you give yourself over to what’s happening onstage – that this is a painting that comes alive – it may strike you that you’ve never seen a show like this before, and that maybe in spite of its very mixed critical reception when it first opened “Sunday in the Park with George” merits the plaudits it received, including a Pulitzer Prize.
It is weakened, however, by Act 2, set 100 years after the first – in 1984. This George is a “modern” artist tortured by self-doubt, by the glad-handing business of the art world and by loneliness too. He may be more sympathetic than Act 1 George, but he’s nowhere near as interesting.
Blum does wonderwork throughout, credit him for that.
This CCAE production is first-rate on a technical level, with scenic backdrops in motion that evoke Seurat’s work (George Gonzalez scenic design), perfect period costumes by Janet Pitcher, Patrick Gates’ projections and sublime lighting by Michelle Miles. It all brings to mind the “Pageant of the Masters” experience up in Laguna Beach, where costumed figures live and breathe inside a picture frame.
Elan McMahan, as reliable as musical directors come in San Diego County, leads an excellent orchestra just beyond the stage.
Only when walking to the car after the show and Googling Seurat did I realize that he’d died at 31 years old, a tragedy.
He does live on in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs through March 5 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.