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REVIEW: Art’s the Word in Sunday in the Park with George (Guthrie Theater)

Randy Harrison (George), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Nurse), Christine Toy Johnson (Old Lady) and Erin Mackey (Dot) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. Photo by T Charles Erickson. 

Sunday in the Park with George is a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine. It tells the story of the 19th-century artist Georges Seurat as he developed the pointillism painting style and takes place during the 2-year period he painted his landmark canvas “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Director Joseph Haj directs a thoughtful production exploring what drives artists to create art, itself populated by many talented artists.

Sunday has intertwined themes: George (Randy Harrison, right) can’t find an audience for his art. Dot (Erin Mackey) can’t find an audience with her lover, either. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

I became fascinated with Sunday when its opening scene was showcased at the 1985 Tony Awards ceremony with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in the lead roles. It is seldom-produced in Minnesota, so the Guthrie’s production was my first opportunity to see the entire musical. It is an unlikely Broadway musical: there are no-rip roaring songs or catchy little tunes that leave you humming as you exit. Instead, it deals with why artists need to create art even when it cannot find an audience.

Seurat died at the age of 31 and never sold a painting in his lifetime. He developed his own type of paintin, known as pointillism – an art form that did not rely upon lines and, instead, used little dots of color to create images and light with almost mathematical precision.   The “Grande Jatte” is his most famous painting: a portrait of a Sunday afternoon at an island park in France where many spend their leisure time. The first half of the musical focuses on the little dramas of the people in the portrait, as well the fanatically driven artist George (Randy Harrison).

One of those on the canvas includes George’s mistress, Dot (Erin Mackey). She is George’s muse and she opens the show posing in the park while singing the delightful “Sunday in the Park with George.”  Mackey’s charismatic performance is definitely the highlight of the show. When Dot returns to sing in the last half of the second act, her presence lifts what has otherwise been a rather bland second act.

Harrison’s George is a compelling figure in the first play’s first act, when he plays the art- and light-obsessed George, who not only often ignores Dot, but  is sometimes downright cruel toward her. Harrison is not so interesting in the second half, where he plays George’s alleged grandson who wins acclaim and commissions by redoing the same soulless work of art over and over again. (The latter character itself is not so interesting.)

Other cast members excel in their slice of life roles. Paul Nakauchi as Jules, a more successful artist and a former instructor to George, portrays a man who is both baffled by and envious of George’s work. Ann Michels as Louis’ wife Yvonne plays a sympathetic woman who reaps the material successes of her husband’s work but is left craving his attention. Emily Gunyou Halaas sparkles in two minor roles, the flirtatious nurse and the crass wealthy American tourist. T. Mychael Rambo is hilarious as the wealthy American tourist with a booming voice and a hankering for French pastry. Sasha Andreev is amusing with his mischievous glances as the park’s Lothario.

The canvas comes together onstage. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has designed exquisite 19th-century apparel for the musical’s first half. Jan Chamber’s white stark set creates a perfect canvas for the staging of the show. Music director and conductor Mark Hartman leads a musical orchestration to the songs that blends perfectly with the performers’ voices.

As you exit the theatre, the show’s song “Move On” will likely be the only tune that lingers with you. But long after the stage is cleared, you will ponder the show’s continuing questions concerning art and those who create it.

Bev Wolfe