Sunday in the Park with George
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Bill English
Before a wall-sized white canvas backdrop, an artist consumed with creation tells us “White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony.” So begins the fictionalized account of painter Georges Seurat’s creation of his master work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. For Sondheim, reeling after the disastrous Merrily We Roll Along, the play was a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Ton award winner. For SF Playhouse, this production is a stunning master work and a triumph for director Bill English.
Sondheim and Lapine embellish what little is known about Seurat’s life to create a haunting and deeply moving study of an ‘artist’ trapped between his all-consuming focus on original creation to the detriment of engaging in a fulfilled integrated life. Spanning a century, we also fast forward to 1981 where Georges great-grandson George, a frustrated multi-media artist is struggling with contemporary issues of patronage, commercialism and success.
In a major casting coup, East-coaster John Bambery (A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Coriolanus, Wallenstein) was flown in to play George and we’re rewarded with a spectacular star-making performance. The angst of a man driven by his passions, but alienated from intimacy makes him both enviable and pitiable. Bambery’s exquisite high baritone is as sharp and focused as his character’s persistent motivation. “Finishing the Hat” is George’s straightforward affirmation of his single-minded dedication: “Look – I made a hat – where there never was a hat!” He’ll lose his lover Dot and newborn child Marie over his obsession.
Sunday is a touching love story, and Nanci Zoppi, a SF Playhouse regular (She Loves Me, City on Angels, Noises Off) shines as Dot, the loyal but frustrated lover. Zoppi, a fine actor and singer, can play up the comedy of her first number “Sunday in the Park with George), the hopefulness of her first date in “Color and Light” and the resignation of having to choose another man in “Everybody Loves Louis”. Zoppi delivers a tender, poignant star performance.
Bill English has set a very high bar with his vision of this production. The artist’s eye is brought to the stage brilliantly through the exquisite lighting of Michael Oesch, the Parisian fashions of costume designer Abra Berman and the fascinating wide-screen projections of Theodore J. H. Hulsker. The ensemble characters who will populate the completed work of art are carefully maneuvered about the stage with the choreography of Kimberly Richards. It all comes together in a beautiful symphony of all the senses magnified by the lovely Sondheim score recreated by musical director Dave Dobrusky.
While it’s difficult to take your eyes off Bambery and Zoppi, an excellent ensemble cast ably supports the storylines of both pastoral 1884 France and 1983’s New York City art scene. Local favorites Maureen McVerry, Ryan Drummond, Michelle Drexler, Ayelet Firstenberg and Will Giammona assume multiple characters among the 16 member cast.
This was my first time seeing a production of Sunday, and I found myself deeply moved. The breathtaking Act I finale made me experience the desire to create and complete something, anything in life whether you’re an artist, a chef or a dishwasher. When George and Dot sing “Move On” late in Act II, the aching romantic in me was reduced to a puddle of tears. I blame and humbly thank Bill English for stirring my heart and soul with this lovely must-see production of Sunday in the Park with George.
Sunday in the Park with George continues through September 8th, 2018 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.
Photo credits by Ken Levin.