Even if you’re not a fan of the painter Georges Seurat or of Stephen Sondheim’s music, you’ll be delighted by the big, heartwarming production of "Sunday in the Park With George" currently playing at Kennedy Theatre. As with any good piece of live theater, the whole transcends its parts.
If you are already a fan, your love will be reaffirmed and reawakened by the energetic young actors, musicians and designers who bring this 30-something musical rejuvenate under the impeccable direction of Paul T. Mitri.
Presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in collaboration with the Department of Music, this student vehicle looks, feels and sounds startlingly professional. The sets, lighting and costumes are gorgeous, befitting the Belle Epoque Paris of the 1880s in which most of the action takes place.
The 20 actors in the company capably navigate Sondheim’s notoriously challenging, often dissonant, octave-leaping scores and complex lyrics, clearly elucidating every word. As they bring to life the figures in Seurat’s masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte," their voices intersect beautifully with the live orchestra in the big chorus numbers "Sunday" and "It’s Hot Up Here."
In roles originated on Broadway by Mandy Patinkin, Timothy Callais, whose flashing smile, athletic build and sweeping movements recall Gene Kelly, plays the black-bearded George of Act 1, who never sold a painting, and his clean-shaven great-grandson of Act 2, also George, a player in the commodified U.S. art world of 1984. As Dot, George’s model, and as young George’s grandmother in Act 2, Leiney Rigg’s big, versatile voice, spirited comic delivery and wide-eyed expression bear a passing resemblance to Bernadette Peters, the original lead. But from the opening, where she poses, singing, "I love your painting/I think I’m fainting" while "sweating by a river on a Sunday," she is convincing on her own.
The introspective, college-educated George mocks the lively Dot, who is teaching herself to read and write, and breaks a promise to take her dancing because he has to finish the hat on his canvas. He is obsessed by his radical new technique, painting with dots of pure color, called pointillism.
But pointillism is not the point of this Pulitzer prize-winning drama by Sondheim and James Lapine — revolution is. And, this being Sondheim, we’re talking artistic revolution.
In lyrics like "art isn’t easy," the musical explores the emotional toll taken on a visionary and creative individual and those who love him. Dot calls George "bizarre, fixed, cold" and later adds, "but it’s warm inside his eyes." If only she could hear him reflect, "I could look at her forever."
‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’
>> Where: Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Frank Rich’s original, rave review in The New York Times called Sondheim as cold as George — charges this stirring production belies. One warms to George as he comforts his frosty old mother (the affecting Jane Kerns) over the trees replaced by the Eiffel Tower, "I’ll draw us now before we fade." We share his wonder as he sings, to some of Sondheim’s most tender music, "Look, I made a hat where there never was a hat." Cerebral isn’t always cold.
While not altogether flawless — the dialogue and the second act’s pacing sag at times — this is a production that, like George’s definition of beautiful, will stay with you. Don’t miss it.
"Sunday in the Park With George," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; directed by Paul Mitri; musical direction by Megan Mount; set design by Jennifer Eccles; lighting by Chikako Omoso; costume design and coordination by Katie Patrick; sound by Rick Greaver. With Timothy Callais (George), Leiney Rigg (Dot and Marie), Jane Kerns (Mother and art critic), Niel Scheibelhut (Jules and museum director), Mykaela Sterris (Yvonne and a composer), Geovante Joseph (Franz and a technician), Anthony Feliciano (Boatman and publicist).