Sondheim, Lapine Playfully Pick Artist’s Brain
by Tyler Jeffreys
S.F. Playhouse’s “Sunday in the Park with George” takes a charming, colorful perspective on making art yesterday and today. My favorite number, “It’s Hot Up Here,” features every figure in George Seurat’s famous painting of Parisian workers relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. They stand eerily still, complaining about living in their 2-D painting prison. This witty musical about an artist’s life unfolds like a brilliant cartoon fable.
Secretive artist George Seurat (melodic John Bambery) is working obsessively on his famous impressionist painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Even the trees are wheeled onto the stage in brilliant green cartoon cut outs. Intriguingly, the projected landscape shows the painting without figures. They are alive and roaming the stage!
Dot (impulsive Nanci Zoppi), George’s model and mistress, complains that solitary George refuses to connect with other people–he’s a workaholic. Seurat even refuses to give his people faces. Working on his room-sized painting, he is determined to use dots instead of brush strokes—an artistic break-through for Impressionism.
In Sondheim’s song “Finishing the Hat,” quick piercing strokes on the keyboard parallel George’s intense … dotting. As George adds more dots to the painted hat, he repeats: “red blue red blue red blue,” while his Dot sits alone, neglected. Director Bill English honors Sondheim’s musical brilliance with first-rate singers, including Bambery, a mesmerizing vocalist.
George claims that his art is who he is. But rival painter Jules (astute Ryan Drummond) haughtily declares George’s painting “lifeless.” At that moment, I realized how much art thrives on life, not the other way around. Today, we are all artists, and take our personal “brands” seriously, especially on social media. Like George, do we only value our own enterprises rather caring about our neighbors?
Dot uses the show’s first song “Sunday in the Park with George” to plead with her lover to take a break. Dot poses in the hot sun, wearing a dark blue Victorian skirt like the one in the painting. We can see her every breath as she belts out high note after high note. Nanci Zoppi hits all the notes Sondheim gives her, beautifully—wearing a corset!
Escaping from her pose, Dot frolics in an out of body experience. As she sings, Dot waves a hand in front of George, but he cannot see her—a witty riddle from Bill English.
“Sunday in the Park with George” asserts the responsibility of the artist to capture life and live it. S.F. Playhouse’s production brilliantly illustrates the consequences for an artist who experiments with life, rather than live it.
In Act Two, we see the future of George’s work. His great grandson, an artist in our time, has a startling, modern machine to exhibit. S.F. Playhouse’s unique musical treat offers us past and future in music and art—a unique and heart-felt adventure for our senses.
“Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Bill English, at S.F. Playhouse, San Francisco, through, Saturday, September 8, 2018. Info: sfplayhouse.org
Cast: John Bambery, Nanci Zoppi, Maureen McVerry, Michelle Drexler, Sam Faustine, Gwen Herdon, Charlotte Ying Levy, Ayelet Firstenberg, Elliot Hanson, Ryan Drummond, Abby Haug, Xander Ritchey, Emily Radosevich, Corrie Farbstein, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, William Giammona, and Zac Schuman.