Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George offers a creative challenge for any theatre — large or small. The piece — which addresses the highly personal process of creating art, and the sacrifices one makes in gaining professional, artistic and commercial success in its development — requires a director with vision, two strong leads, a strong ensemble, innovative design work and a music director that can handle the complex staccato score.
If there’s any group equipped to meet this challenge, it’s Porchlight Music Theatre. This company has made a name for itself in developing top quality, innovative productions of ensemble-driven musicals.
And for the most part, Porchlight delivers. Director L. Walter Stearns has assembled a design team and ensemble that brings Seurat’s painting to life.
For those unfamiliar, Sunday has two acts on a similar theme: Act one is a mostly fictional account of workaholic 19th century French painter Georges Seurat (Brandon Dahlquist) as he creates his most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” A tender and sad love story between the painter and his muse, the aptly-named Dot, brings heart to the piece. Act two transports us to the 1980s where Seurat’s great grandson, a successful experimental artist also named George (Dahlquist again), struggles with his legacy and his desire to create something new in an environment that requires grants and funding.
(And that’s just scraping the surface of this dense show.)
Dahlquist handles his duties as the obsessive painter admirably. A more than passable tenor, it’s his intensity that draws you in. This is one fine actor. You do get the sense, however, that he needed a little more time with Sondheim’s tricky score — an undercurrent of hesitation plagues his performance.
As Dot, Jess Godwin makes it easy to see why George would find inspiration in her. She’s stunning. However, hearing her was a different matter. In addition to concentration (as George persistently instructs her from afar as he sketches), this Dot needs to focus on projection. Especially in the second act when she plays George’s grandmother — every other line is lost.
But there’s a bigger problem here, aside from the audible issues: Godwin has taken a counterintuitive approach to Dot, making her a melancholy, insecure wallflower rather than the frustrated spitfire many actresses take. Ok, fine. But at times her severely underplayed performance comes off as disinterested rather than diminished. The problem for me was Godwin seemed emotionally checked out of her relationship with George at the top of the show — there was nowhere for her to go. “We Do Not Belong Together,” her tearful goodbye song in late act one, suffers as a result.
As the various subjects in Seurat’s paintings, several cast members shine. Sarah Hayes (who would have made for an interesting Dot) hits all the right notes as the overworked nurse and the crass American. Sarah Stern showcases her strong voice as George’s mother in “Beautiful” — one of my favorite songs in the show. And the statuesque Heather Townsend finds the cracks beneath Yvonne’s steely demeanor. On the flipside, they each do admirable work serving as wry critics and spectators of George’s work in act two.
Music direction by Eugene Dizon is among the best work I’ve heard from Porchlight. A seven player chamber ensemble represents Sondheim’s score proudly (although their being regulated to backstage caused for some sound mix and syncing issues on opening night).
But the real star in this show is designer Amanda Sweger. She’s managed to place Seurat’s pointillism technique under a microscope, exploring how beach ball-sized dots play off each other. The result is both inspired and whimsical (if a tad cluttered). Costume design by Mina Hyun-Ok Hong is stunningly sophisticated, but perhaps slightly out of synch with Sweger’s more playful approach.
“Sunday in the Park with George” plays through Oct. 31 at Stage 773. More info here >