“Sunday in the Park with George,” Pasadena Playhouse, Feb. 15 – Mar. 19, 2023
Feb. 24, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman
In Brief: There’s no denying the sublime pleasure that Sondheim’s masterpiece delivers some 40 years on. The Pasadena Playhouse’s gratifying revival is first rate in nearly every way. It’s a gift for steadfast theatregoers and Broadway musical fans alike.
After writing two of the most successful and acclaimed musicals of the 1950s – West Side Story and Gypsy – Stephen Sondheim completed his hat trick with another Broadway hit, this time composing music as well as the lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Then the prodigy (he was only 31 when the knockabout farce opened in 1961) turned his attention to works that were darker and more nuanced, stories that were either intellectually curious – Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures – or personally resonant – Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and Sunday in the Park with George.
Sunday must have been particularly meaningful for him, raising exasperating questions about how an artist navigates the contradictory poles of free expression with the requirements of marketplace acceptance, so that the work might have a life outside the studio. (Sondheim calls this “the art of making art.”)
As he cleverly laments in Putting It Together, the witty, socko anthem in the show’s second act:
Lining up the funds, but in addition Lining up a prominent commission Otherwise your perfect composition Isn't going to get much exhibition
The play’s other major theme – should, or must, an artist sacrifice love, relationships, family, and what we nongeniuses call happiness for art – surely reflected the conflicted nature of Sondheim’s mind and heart throughout his life. Sondheim married only a few years before his death at 91 and never had children.
George Seurat died young, also heirless, though Sondheim and playwright James Lapine imagine a different outcome. The story is divided into two eras. The largely expository first act is set during Seurat’s brief lifetime, mainly in the 1880s. The more dynamic second act takes place in 1983 at the Chicago Art Institute, home to Seurat’s monumental A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and where another artist, also named George, is debuting his newest work for museum donors.
Graham Phillips plays both Georges. Krystina Alabado plays Seurat’s model and lover Dot and in Act II the contemporary George’s grandmother Marie, who believes that her mother was the real Dot and that 1983 George is Seurat’s great grandson.
More on this production in a moment.
Also read: Starry Nights on Broadway
An earlier revival of Sunday in the Park with George was one of the highlights of the 2017 Broadway season. It was musical theatre perfection, the happy marriage of Lapine’s timeless, resonant book, Sondheim’s poetic score and smart lyrics, and authoritative performances from Jake Gyllenhaal – intense, magnetic, he’s not a movie star for nothing – and the Broadway pro Annaleigh Ashford.
That same year Bette Midler wowed New York in Hello, Dolly, yet another glorious reworking of a beloved musical.
The two shows couldn’t be further apart in subject matter, tone, or creative intention, but they shared a few things in common: the masterful stagecraft and production values that are the Broadway standard, exceptional musicianship and choral work, a coherent creative vision.
This is a terrific production of "Sunday in the Park with George"
They also offered vibrant leading performances from veteran actors who could command the stage. Whether at dramatic moments or intimate ones, they were firmly in control. They transported us, lifted us out of our seats, made certain that we knew that there was no better place on earth to be at that moment than in their thrall.
And it’s that element that is missing on the Pasadena Playhouse stage. It’s not that Phillips and Alabado aren’t very talented actors and singers. His voice is fine, in the manner of the Mandy Patinkin, the original Broadway George, though without Patinkin’s passion and intensity in the big moments.
Alabado’s soprano is rich, except when she struggles occasionally on the lower end of the musical register. While she’s a little mannered in Act I, she’s a delightful, memorable elderly Marie in the emotional second act when Sondheim’s tunes and lyrics really soar, and the production finally revs into high gear.
This pleasing revival is the work of the same team that produced the magnificent 2017 Broadway show, starting with director Sarna Lapine. She’s had ample time since then to think about the text, to get the details right, to knit everything into an expressive, fluid whole.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting wizard Ken Billington, costume designer Clint Ramos also reprise their roles. Andy Einhorn wasn’t part of that group, but his musical direction here is equally top notch.
Sunday in the Park with George is a monumental work. The Pasadena Playhouse production is admirable, rewarding, entertaining and worth the schlep. Are we getting the A-List cast here? No. (But neither have we seen Kelli O’Hara, Patti Lupone, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bette Middler, Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, Sara Bareilles, Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy and many others recreate their recent Broadway starring roles in Southern California, a metropolitan area of some 18 million and the entertainment capital of the world!)
Quibbles aside, overall, this is a terrific production of Sunday in the Park with George. I enjoyed it immensely.
"Sunday in the Park with George," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org