Can you accept a gift? Then give yourself one, and ticket up for Sunday in the Park With George — the first main-stage production of Pasadena Playhouse‘s six-month festival celebrating Stephen Sondheim. The theatrical genius whose pedigree connects him directly to the great, preceding generation (he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein), Sondheim, who left our midst in 2021, never shed the persona of wunderkind his entire career.
Never moreso than in the cheeky, genre-advancing (and 1984 Pulitzer Prize-garnering) premise of his musical inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show, which I had never before seen in production, has a (somewhat schematic, but that’s fine) wheel-inside-a-wheel structure that takes Seurat’s exquisite canvas, a breakthrough in its day for its mix of art and science, as a jumping-off point to explore the very human activity of art creation and procreation (“Children and Art“).
At the center of the clever ruminations conjured by Sondheim and his book-writer Jame Lapine is the wear-and-tear love relationship between Seurat, the artist, and his model, Dot (Krystina Alabado, whose sonorous voice in song I found utterly enchanting). The show careens in time between two settings one hundred years hence: in the first act, we take a stroll with the nattering, gossipy Sunday Parisians in their funny hats and parasols. The second act shall remain a revelation in keeping with artsmeme‘s “no spoilers” policy. The entire spectacle (French pronunciation, please) portends loads of pondering about the artistic process and its human costs.
I purposefully attended Sunday in the Park With George on a Sunday so the great lyricist’s myriad insertions of that single word in his glorious songspiel would have special resonance. Language is at the heart of Sunday in the Park — which for me was more akin to opera than conventional musical theater. If you are a wordsmith, just go! The show is an onslaught of funny rhymes and witty punning.
Kudos to the historic Playhouse’s producing artistic director Danny Feldman for conceiving of Sondheim Celebration, as the festival is called — even getting the maestro’s approval for it before he made his exit stage left. The historic house on a nippy, rain-splattered night was a cozy nest, although I much prefer the balcony here, which gave marvelous clear sightlines. You could nearly feel the vibration ricocheting between the excellent, alert cast and the attentive audience, giving full eye, ear, heart, and mind to this marvelous theatrical journey through time, space, and a painting. Kudos as well to the live, hard-working orchestra. Those songs!
Sunday in the Park with George is part of Greater LA Theatre Week, which is bringing 30 performing arts organizations and venues in Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Valley – including Center Theatre Group, Broadway in Hollywood, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, La Mirada Theatre, East West Players, A Noise Within, and BroadStage – together to create affordable access to over 75 productions.
Sunday in the Park With George | Pasadena Playhouse | thru March 19
Arts journalist Debra Levine founded artsmeme in 2008.