Saturday, January 14, 2012

SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Often when I'm writing blog posts, I try to remind myself not to use too many adjectives.  And then there's this post…  I'm not even sure where to start it's so good.

The Rep. is currently presenting Stephen Sondheim (my hero) and James Lapine’s achingly beautiful Sunday in the Park with George, and this production, exceptionally directed by Rob Ruggiero, is impressive.  The "George" of the title is French painter, Georges Seurat.  Seurat developed a technique of painting called pointillism in the 1880's, in which small dots of basic color are juxtaposed to form different hues when viewed from a distance.  This Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winning musical uses Seurat's masterpiece (a two-year effort), "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", as a jumping off point, but this show is about way more than just a painting.  It's about one of Sondheim's favorite themes -- human connection (and/or the lack of being able to obtain it).

Erin Davie as Dot, Kari Ely as Nurse, Ron Bohmer as George
and Zoe Vonder Haar as Old Lady. © Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
"White.  A blank page or canvas.  The challenge: bring order to the whole.  Through design.  Composition.  Tension.  Balance.  Light.  And harmony."  These opening lines introduce us to George (Ron Bohmer) who's sketching his lover and model, Dot (Erin Davie) -- foremost featured in the painting.  As the Rep's stage becomes filled with massively impressive (<-- those adjectives, like I warned…) sliding set pieces (Adrian W. Jones) and warm, dappled lighting (John Lasiter), George initially seems dismissive and consigned to his sketchbook while Dot craves closer attention.  But she is happy to oblige him as she poses for his sketchings in the hot sun.  She notices in her delightful opening number, "Sunday in the Park with George", that "artists are bizarre, fixed and cold", but she loves him, and admires his talent.  But loving an artist can be a challenge because sometimes there's not much room for anything else but the artist's "art", while you're left feeling incomplete.  And for the artist, it may be difficult to become attached to what you can't control outside of your own studio.  (cough,thiscouldSObeaboutSondheimandmanyartistsofwhatevermediacough,cough)

Ron Bohmer as George and Erin Davie as Dot.
© Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

This sets up the main dynamic for much of the rest of the show.  The first act looks at the 1880's George, completing his masterwork and the scrutiny that comes along with it, but we're also treated to wonderful scenes featuring some of the subjects from his current project.  These two-dimensional figures take on a third dimension for a time, and we see their interaction with each other and George, brought to vibrant life by the amazing ensemble along with gorgeous costumes courtesy of Alejo Vietti.

The second act jumps forward to Seurat's great-grandson, also an artist struggling with connection and the commercialism of the time.  "George.2" endures fancy gallery affairs in an effort to obtain grants to finance his series of "Chromolumes" -- modern art machines using lights, lasers and color.  In a trip to the original setting of his great-grandfather's La Grande Jatte, new lessons are learned by George.2, and a new appreciation is gained for the art of achieving connection outside of yourself.  And your art.

Erin Davie as Dot, Ron Bohmer as George and Cast.
© Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 
Ron Bohmer was an impassioned George with a great voice.  Actually, everyone had great voices.  Erin Davie made a flirty, playful and marvelously realized Dot and Marie.  (I love that Seurat's love interest is named "Dot".  Brilliant.)  I saw Erin Davie a few years ago in "Grey Gardens" and later in "A Little Night Music" (another display of Sondheim's genius), and yes, I love her.  Can't say enough about the rest of the performers either.  Numbers like "Gossip", "Sunday" and "It's Hot Up Here" are beautifully performed by this perfectly cast ensemble. Some standouts for me included the surly boatman, Steve French, Celestes #1 and #2, (Meggie Cansler and Audrey Rae McHale), Chris Hietikko's Jules, Zoe Vonder Haar's Old Lady, the Southern visitors, Whit Reichert  and Rebecca Watson, and Kari Ely as the Nurse and Harriet Pawling.  Most play double roles in the first and second acts, and they are all excellent.  The creative crew also wowed with the aforementioned scenic design, costumes and lighting along with sound and musical direction by Michael Hooker and F. Wade Russo.  Seurat would have been proud -- taking all of these singular elements that form something much richer when combined and taken in from a few steps back.  Love…

Zoe Vonder Haar as Blair Daniels, Erin Davie as Marie
and Meggie Cansler as Elaine. © Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Many regard this show as one of Sondheim's greatest works, and for good reason.  I find it interesting that Suerat approached his art almost scientifically.  Kinda like Sondheim.  Right!?!  Although this musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama after it opened, it got only mixed reviews when it made its Broadway debut in 1984.  Yet you've got this lovely leitmotif (one of a few), particularly in "Color and Light" from the first act, in which Sondheim mimics Seurat's pointillistic brush strokes in his melody and lyrics.  Sigh… I'm sorry.  I just think Sondheim is a genius.  And just a quick note -- a couple of people sitting next to me left at intermission.  Idiots…

This show has confirmed my belief in two things -- The Rep is the bomb, and Stephen Sondheim is the Einstein of theatre.  Go see it right now.  For real.  This show should not be missed.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,
Georges Seurat, 1884

Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through January 29 | tickets: $19 - $77
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm Wednesdays–Fridays at 8pm Selected Wednesdays at 1:30pm Saturdays at 5pm Selected Saturdays at 9pm Sundays at 2pm Selected Sundays at 7pm

Ron Bohmer (George), Erin Davie (Dot and Marie), Meggie Cansler (Celeste #1 and Elaine), Nyssa Duchow (Young Woman in Park), Kari Ely (Nurse and Harriet Pawling), Mark Emerson (Louis and Billy Webster), Steve French (Boatman and Dennis), Abbey Friedmann (Louise), Chris Hietikko (Jules and Bob Greenberg), Charlie Ingram (Horn Player and Photographer), Jacob Lacopo (Boy Bathing and Waiter), Jamie LaVerdiere (Franz and Charles Redmond), Deanne Lorette (Yvonne and Naomi Eisen), Sean Montgomery (Soldier and Alex), Jordan Parente (Young Man and Waiter), Audrey Rae McHale (Celeste #2 and Party Guest), Whit Reichert (Mr. and Lee Randolph), Zoe Vonder Haar (Old Lady and Blair Daniels) and Rebecca Watson (Freida, Mrs. and Betty).

Scenic design by Adrian W. Jones; costume design by Alejo Vietti; lighting design by John Lasiter; sound design by Michael Hooker; musical direction by F. Wade Russo; choreography by Ralph Perkins; stage manager, Champe Leary; assistant stage manager, Tony Dearing.

Conducted by F. Wade Russo; concertmaster, violin, Alison Rolf; violin, viola, Tova Braitberg; cello, Marcia Mann; french horn, Nancy Schick; reeds, Michael Buerk; keyboard, Henry Palkes.


  1. This was the most boring play I have ever seen and the only one I have walked out on during the intermission. I heard multiple people snoring in the audience.

  2. I'm sorry to hear that. But hey, everyone's taste is different. I think this show, while not being well-received when it debuted on Broadway, was quite cutting edge for its time. While it may not have the "amped up" energy of a Wicked or Chicago or Jersey Boys, I thought it was beautiful, and plan to see it again.

    Just curious -- what was it about the show that you didn't like? And thanks for your response!