Have you ever looked at a painting and wanted to know the story of the painter or the people in it? If your answer is “Yes!” or “Duh, I’m an art history major,” then seeing MF’s current production of Sunday in the Park with George is the perfect way to spend your weekend.
Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, takes the audience straight into 1884 France as crazed painter Georges Seurat works on “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” This work, pictured above, is done in Seurat’s complex pointilistic style (aka all tiny dots). The first act of the musical focuses on Seurat and the many people in the park — including his love interest Dot and their dysfunctional affair. Then the second act jumps to the 1980s where Seurat’s alleged great-grandson is putting on an art exhibit of his own. Sunday focuses on what it means to be an artist, what it means to see light and beauty in unseen places, and how to keep moving on in an ever-changing world.
Director Ben Freeman ’13 bravely takes on this complicated and dense musical work. His unique choice to do the piece in the thrust makes the audience feel as though they are also being observed and painted by George. We, as an audience, are in George’s painting. We are part of the art. As Freeman says, “My deepest wish is that audience members emerge feeling empowered, uplifted — luminescent, really. That they leave the theatre at least a little willing to believe in their own light.” Freeman juggles the many themes and motifs of the play well. What could feel heavy and complicated feels light and effortless. His wonderful choice to constantly keep the cast on their toes almost floating brings an effortless feel to Sunday that could easily be lost in the difficult music numbers and unconventional plot. That Freeman managed to make such a complex work seem so simple and tangible is a true feat.
Almost completely white, the set designed by Ben Chesler ’15 feels like George Seurat’s blank canvas. The talented cast fills the stage creating Freeman’s artistic vision. The lighting design by Jon Key RISD ’13 adds the color and depth that work to mirror George’s artistic process.
Brady Waibel ’12 leads this cast in a brilliant portrayal of both George Seurat and his great-grandson. Waibel captures the essence of the crazed painter. For one number he even gets down on all fours and pretends to play a dog. Waibel is able to perfectly balance the humor and delusion that is Seurat’s mind. Waibel and his co-star Christine Pappas ’14, who plays Dot and Marie, sound incredible together. Pappas is mesmerizing. She convincingly plays the woman that transfixed the attention of Seurat and then an old woman in a wheelchair. You will leave Sunday as fascinated and dazzled as Seurat was.
The ensemble does a great job of blending in for the large group numbers (as in the painting), but they also each add spice and flavor to their individual moments. Every cast member plays multiple roles and does a nice job distinguishing them from each other. They keep moving the audience through the world. Elsa Obus ’13 and Emily Boney ’15 work together beautifully as a constant comic relief to the serious tone of the musical.
The ensemble numbers really shine within this show. Freeman’s direction of the act one finale is absolutely stunning. The ensemble goes from people to puppets in the hands of George. Freeman wonderfully manipulates this idea of puppetry throughout the course of the piece. Musically, this show is extremely difficult with many cast members constantly overlapping with different melodies. However, the numbers “Sunday” and “Its Hot up Here” bring the cast together in magical moments of stillness and light.
Music Director Rebecca Lichtin ’14 does a remarkable job handling the different styles and tempos of music that make this incredible score. And that’s not even counting that she can’t see the actors from the pit — talk about a challenge. Sondheim’s music brilliantly matches the tone and story of Seurat’s painting, and Lichtin has definetly kept this feel. As Lichtin says, “The style of the music for the two acts definitely mirror the two worlds of the different acts. In the first act, the music mirror’s Seurat’s pointilistic painting style — you can hear his brush strokes in the staccatos and accents in the music. And the second act is your standard ’80s synthy sound mixed with a touch of some of the first act’s spirit and beauty.”
As Freeman pointed out to me, one beautiful line from the show is, “You are only good insofar as you allow yourself to share and be shared.” Sunday explores the difficulty it takes to be an artist — always striving to be well received, yet original. Art is hard, but Freeman makes it seems so effortless. He is sharing his vision with the campus, and I encourage everyone to share in this experience.
The show runs April 27-30 at 8 p.m. with an additional show Sunday April 29 at 2 p.m. Check the Facebook event for details. Tickets sold out within seconds online, so show up early to line up, as the remaining tickets will be released an hour before each performance. And, if this article wasn’t enough Sunday for you, check out this fun video made by the cast: