A strong cast and stunning visual design make “Sunday in the Park With George” a memorable season-opener for Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
This is a show about Georges Seurat, the French post-impressionist, and the creation of his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” In other words, it’s about a man creating a beautiful picture, and this production, directed by Eric Rosen, is a succession of beautiful images flowing on and off stage.
The show, with songs by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, is a clever conceit in which we are offered sketchy backstories on some of the characters in the famous painting, who come to life in the hands of a gifted supporting cast. Yet the show remains dramatically remote, in part because Sondheim characteristically resists the urge to write vivid, memorable melodies.
Even so, the first act works quite well as a self-contained chamber musical. Act 2 catapults the audience 100 years into the future, where we meet Seurat’s great-grandson, an “inventor” who creates electronic art installations. The second act is an awkward construct in which the authors repeat the point they’ve already made: that innovative art is always misunderstood in the beginning and that true artists have no choice but to follow their visions.
In terms of design, this qualifies as one of the most creative shows Rosen has staged during his tenure at the Rep. And a good deal of the creative inspiration was born of necessity. Because the Spencer Theatre, the Rep’s traditional main stage on the UMKC campus, is undergoing a major refurbishment and was therefore unavailable, the Rep partnered with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to stage the show in the Atkins Auditorium.
The auditorium isn’t a theater, and the designers had to make do with a venue without wings or fly space. Donald Eastman’s scenic design employs a series of onstage easels and minimal props that are given depth and dynamism by Jeffrey Cady’s seductive lighting. Working in concert with Eastman and Cady was projection designer Jason H. Thompson, whose visual overlays bring paintings to life and, in Act 2, allow star Claybourne Elder to interact with moving projections of the actor framed on white canvases.
There are moments in this production that are visually mesmerizing. The icing on the cake: Linda Roethke’s elegant costume designs, many of which are dazzling.
Elder anchors the production with a thoughtful, heartfelt performance as Seurat, who is depicted here as a man so obsessed with his artistic vision that he lacks the emotional resources to sustain meaningful relationships. As Dot, his model and lover, Sara Jean Ford is relatively pallid, although she shows moments of shrewd comic timing. She and Elder are terrific singers.
All of the performances are visually and vocally precise, and the supporting players bring the tableaux of characters to life with inventive comic details. Particularly impressive are Charles Fugate as Jules, a fellow painter, and Melinda MacDonald as his wife, Yvonne; Colleen Grate as Celeste #1 and Stefanie Wienecke as Celeste #2; Seth Golay as Franz and Lauren Braton as Frieda; Daniel Beeman as the Soldier and Jake Walker as Louis, the baker.
John-Michael Zuerlein makes a strong impression as the Boatman, and Shanna Jones and TJ Lancaster are hilarious as a couple of uncouth Americans visiting Paris. Jones also plays the Nurse to the impeccable Judy Simmons as the Old Lady. All of the actors return in Act 2 to play “modern” roles and generally display laudable versatility. The only technical flaw on opening night was an occasionally imprecise sound mix and an embarrassing moment in Act 1 when a wireless mic somewhere backstage picked up a bit of extraneous noise.
Some people love this musical. More power to them, I say. It’s not on my list of favorites. Yet in this production, the material becomes the vehicle for a sumptuous production that offers some of the most creative stagecraft you’re likely to see.