“Sunday in the Park with George” Is Beauty At Its Best

Sondheim Prize-winning musical arrives in full splendor at Arvada Center for the Art and Humanities

Reviewed by Tom Jones
April 18, 2018

On a wall of the Art Institute of Chicago hangs an enormous work – “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The painting by George Seurat is about eight feet by ten feet, and is his view of Parisians relaxing in a park on an island in the Seine in the late 1800s.

Seurat was a 25-year old Parisian painter who worked the next two years to complete the project. He did not use the traditional brush strokes, but affixed each speck of paint dot-by-dot, spearheading the pointillism movement. The painting did not meet with great acclaim, but has subsequently been accepted as one of the art masterpieces of the 1800s.

“Sunday in the Park with George” is a remarkable fictitious account of what constitutes art, reminding us that “art isn’t easy,” and showing the torment Seurat went through, causing grief for himself and all those around him while completing the painting.

Cole Burden is excellent as the tormented and tormenting George Seurat. He has no patience with himself or with his models as his “art” is everything. He is also a perfectionist who toils endlessly over getting his “dots” just right to create appropriate color in the eyes of the beholder. His “Finishing the Hat” is among the finest Broadway scenes in memory.

Object of much of his ranting is his model, Dot. Emily Van Fleet is a wonder as the not-very-educated young model who wants more than anything to be a dancer in the “Follies,” and complains incessantly that “It’s hot out here,” standing still in the French park while George immortalizes her on canvas. She wants to be educated and does retain a book of her notes about grammar.

Matt Gale Photography 2018

“Sunday in the Park with George” was originally written as a one-act musical, expanding to two acts shortly before opening on Broadway in 1984. Act I revolves around Seurat’s work on the project, and his relationship with his model/mistress “Dot,” and the Sunday park visitors who wander through his painting

At the conclusion of Act I, George realizes that his “white canvas” has now become full of glorious color, and stops painting with the cast and models freezing into one of Broadways most glorious Act I conclusions: “Sunday.”

Any act would be difficult to follow what transpired before the curtain fell on Act I. Rod A. Lansberry, director of the current Arvada production, has done wonders in bring Act II to life, instilling it with emotion and beauty that were lacking in the original show. This act takes place 100 years after conclusion of the painting. George’s great grandson, also named “George,” is living in Chicago and has become an artist. Not with oils but with mechanics and lights.

He is being honored at a reception at the Chicago Art Institute, home of the “Grand Jatte” painting, and is surrounded by persons wishing to be seen near him, even some who might honor him with a commission for future work. The original George was not honored in his lifetime, and none of his paintings sold while he was alive. At the base of the now-considered masterpiece “A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” his great grandson explains how the concept of art has changed so dramatically in past years, with the artist now having to devote too much of his time in finding funds.

Matt Gale Photography 2018

Emily Van Fleet, Dot in Act I, now returns to the stage as the wheelchair bound grandmother, Marie. She has come to the Art Institute where George is being honored and lapses in and out of reality in her memories of the past. Again, Van Fleet is mesmerizing.

“Sunday in the Park with George” opened on Broadway in 1984 and in London two years later. It has gone on to productions worldwide and major revivals in New York and London. It received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in1985, the ninth musical in history to be so honored.

Stephen Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for the show, including some of his most thoughtful ideas. Near the end of the show, as the great-grandson George explains that it might now be time to “Move On,” making decisions that may or may not work out as you wish. Sondheim’s lyric suggests, “The choices may be mistaken, but the choosing is not.”

Matt Gale Photography 2018

The current production at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is full of beauty; the music, the lyrics, the staging, the lighting, and the costumes.

The finale of Act I remains as glorious as ever, but now Act II provides its own beauty. As the story concludes, George looks back and notes, “White, a blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” “Sunday in the Park with George” is a treasure all its own.

– – – – –
Illusion vs. reality

George Seurat was actually only 25 years old when he began work on his “Grande

Matt Gale Photography 2018

Jatte” painting, completing it two years later.

His model/mistress was Madeleine Knobloch (known as “Dot” in the musical). She did not marry another and move to America as Dot does in the musical.

George and Madeleine had a son. The son and George died within two weeks of each other when George was only 31. Madeleine was pregnant when George and their first son died. The second son died shortly after birth.

The “George” of Act II in the musical, supposedly the great-grandson of the painter, is an invention and never existed.

“Sunday in the Park with George”
Where: Main Stage Theatre, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.
6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, CO 80003-9985
When: Through May 6, 2018
Tickets: 720/898-7200
For more information: Arvadacenter.org

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World Premiere of Colorado Playwright Laura Pritchett’s “Dirt, a Terra Nova Expedition”

Bas Bleu Delivers An Alarming Reminder Of The Six Inches Of Soil Beneath Us

Reviewed by Tom Jones
April 15, 2018

Wendy Ishii, founding artistic director of Bas Bleu theatre, acknowledges that she is a risk taker. Creating a theatre company in Fort Collins was one. She took another risk (or challenge) several months ago in her living room after viewing a documentary film “Symphony of the Soil” in the company of Colorado author, Laura Pritchett. The two exchanged ideas and came upon the possibility of Pritchett writing a play about the soil – “Dirt.” Pritchett is a successful writer, publishing five novels and two works of non-fiction. She had not (yet) written a play.

The idea was “planted” and fertile soil appeared in the form of a commission by Bas Bleu to turn Pritchett’s ideas about soil science and planet concerns into a full-length play. The world premiere of “Dirt. A Terra Nova Expedition” opened April 5, 2018, at Bas Bleu, and continues its local run through May 6.

Photo Credit Bill Cotton

The result provides fascinating and frightening observations concerning the future of life on our planet. At the beginning of “Dirt,” we are introduced to Estella and Leo (played by Tabitha Tyree and Jacob Richardson) living in an underground bunker beneath the surface of Fort Collins 20 years in the future. Life above ground is disappearing, and the young couple has reserved enough provisions to live for only a few months. Estella is pregnant, and due to have her baby soon. They spend their days observing scientific data, reviewing global histories, and are now writing a play about their lives beneath the ground. Leo takes the role of sacrificing his own life for the benefit of others by leaving enough provisions for Estella to survive beneath the surface until the baby is born.

Photo Credit Bill Cotton

He instructs Stella to remain in the underground bunker until time for the child to be born, at which time she must climb the ladder to escape with the hope that the planet’s ecological system will have been successful modified. Leo reminds Stella of the sacrifice that explorer Robert Scott made for men in his charge on an expedition to Antarctica in 1912, and he climbs up the ladder to face the hostile world by himself.
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The pregnant Estella is left alone in the bunker. She continues writing the play that she and Leo had discussed. She becomes immersed in scientific studies, alarmed at what has happened to the soil, and pained by results of perceived global warning. Her mind is beginning to unravel to the point that she does not clearly understand what is happening to her. She conjures up memories of the past, including instructions her professor father gave to her. She muses over the “mentors” that have been around for centuries to help scientists and artists “create.” She gives thought to the philosophy that we “truly do not realize all that we do not know.”

Her mental wanderings introduce her to scientists, medical personnel, philosophers and eventually to Persephone, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility, who arrives to help Estella at the time of childbirth. The play’s voice sounds alarms about what we need to do in order to save our own existence. Action of the plot takes place just 20 years in the future giving, the reminder that time is running out.

Photo Credit Bill Cotton

Jennifer Bray, Kevin Coldiron, and Maya Jairam, playing multiple roles in and out of Estella’s mind, join Tyree and Richardson on stage. Myths of past philosophies and isms are produced in dance, as are the appearance of scientific Nematodes (roundworms). Aleah Black, Francis Lister, and Holly Wedgeworth are the musical dancers who are sometimes enchanting, sometimes spookily reminiscent to the ghoulish “walking dead,

The show’s director, Jeffrey Bigger, writes in the show’s program, “I will be forever changed by what I have learned working on this show. Coming to the realization that there are just six inches between life and death was a very cathartic moment.”

Playwright Pritchett grew up on a small ranch in northern Colorado. She received her BA and MA in English a Colorado State University, and has a PhD in English from Purdue University. Her writings have garnered many awards, with subject matter focusing on ecology, conservation, climate change, and social justice issue.

“Dirt, a Terra Nova Expedition”
Where: Bas Bleu Theatre
401 Pine Street, Fort Collins, CO 80524
When: Through May 6, 2018
Tickets: 970/498-8949
For more information: www.basbleu.org

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“Ragtime” Is An Explosion Of Talent At MAC

Sheer Brilliance Is Key In This Powerful Production.

Reviewed by Tom Jones
April 13, 2018

Some musicals have outstanding overtures. Some have incredible finales. “Ragtime” has one of my all-time favorite introductory scenes. In the show’s first ten minutes three diverse cultures vividly come to life in the New York of 1906. There are the privileged upper class whites living in the New York suburb of New Rochelle; African Americans living in downtown Harlem; and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who have found space in lower-Manhattan tenements.

The New Rochelle family consists of Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Grandfather, and Little Boy. Father is leaving the home to travel for a year with Admiral Peary’s expedition to the North Pole. He is leaving Mother at home to be “in charge” for the first time in their marriage.

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

The Harlem citizens are Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (a man-about-town musician), his girlfriend (Sarah), and their friends. Sarah has become pregnant by Coalhouse, and flees to New Rochelle, where no one will know her to give birth to the baby, hiding it in a local garden.

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

Coming from Latvia are Tateh, a Jewish widower, who is bringing his daughter from poverty-stricken Eastern Europe, with the desire of finding some degree of happiness in the New World.

Characters in each of the cultures initially appear unaware of the other culture’s existence, preferring to live only in their immediate sphere. This is about to change when Mother finds the newborn black baby in her garden, and shows innate caring and capabilities by bringing mother and baby into her home to give them refuge. Coalhouse frantically looks for his beloved Sarah and ultimately finds her in the upper-class neighborhood of New Rochelle. The local citizens there are openly racist, especially men in the fire department, even though some of them have faced discrimination in their new surroundings, having come from Ireland. They want nothing to do with anyone of color.

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

While waiting for a train at the New Rochelle train station Mother meets Tateh and his frightened daughter. He is equally frightened, and has placed a rope around the daughter’s waist, pulling her along with fear he might lose her. This is a chance encounter that will ultimately be rewarding.

These divergent characters have difficulty co-existing, accepting other cultures, and meshing into a single society. They initially appear to be ignorant of the other cultures’ existences, preferring to live only in their immediate sphere.

Performances are universally excellent. Brian Boyd has an outstanding voice as the in-charge Coalhouse. Marissa Rudd matches his talent as Coalhouse’s girlfriend, Sarah. Alisa Metcalf is heartwarming as Mother, whose first major independent decision is to rescue Sarah and the newborn child. Father (Taylor Marrs) returns from the North Pole, appalled at what his wife as done. Chris Trimboli is believable as the Jewish immigrant with his daughter in tow. Marrs, Metcalf, and Trimboli also have excellent voices. The musical has become a heartwarming opera with English dialogue

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

”Ragtime” first appeared in 1975 as an historical novel by E. L. Doctorow. A movie version of the book appeared in 1981. The intertwined stories of the three cultures were then set to the impressive music and lyrics of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with book for the musical by Terrence McNally. The show was introduced in Canada in 1996, but did not arrive on Broadway until January of 1998. It was very successful, received great audience acclaim, honored with several awards, and ran for 834 performances.

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

The story is successfully told to continually-interesting music: marches cakewalks, gospel, and the ever-enduring syncopated ragtime. The music has rarely, if ever, sounded better than currently heard on the MAC stage. Among the musical highlights are “Journey On,” “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” “Wheels of a Dream,” “Sarah Brown Eyes,” and “He Wanted to Say.” The format itself is not perfect. The overly-long Act I seems to be ready to happily conclude two or three times before some unpleasant situations must be faced.

Most performers in the large cast play multiple roles, including the impressive Daniel Harkins who turns up as Grandfather, J. P. Morgan, and Admiral Peary, switching roles, costumes and wigs something like 15 times in the course of the evening. The show’s author cleverly inserted the lives of several famous people to the story. We meet Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Brooker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw, Admiral Peary and Emma Goldman –all historical New York figures of the early 1900s.

Supporting players include Jalyn Courtenay Webb, impressive as Emma Goldman, Kyle Smith as Younger Brother, Hugh Buttterfield as Willie Conklin, and Charlotte Campbell as the saucy Evelyn Nesbit.

Image by Dyann DIercks Photography

Produced by Kurt Terrio, the MAC production is flawlessly directed and choreographed by Joseph Callahan, with Jalyn Courtenay Webb as Music Director. Scenic design and lighting by Chad Bonaker, costumes by Charlotte Campbell and Alisa Metcalf, sound by Patrick Lapinski. The set is not attractive, but is cleverly functional. The orchestra is successfully conducted by Casey Cropp. Choral music and stage movement are extremely impressive throughout.

The costumes, the choral work, the directions, the acting, the music, sound and lighting all work to perfection, resulting in one of Midtown Arts most triumphant productions, maybe even matching their “Les Miserables” wonder of a few seasons ago.

Unfortunately, the basic themes of social injustice and intolerance remain as disturbing as ever, with little true advancement since the New York of 1906.

“Ragtime”
Where: Midtown Arts Center, 3750 South Mason Street, Fort Collins, CO 80525
When: To May 26, 2018
Information: Box Office: 970/225-2555
Website / Tickets:  www.midtownartscenter.com

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“And Then There Were None” (Except For The Audience & One Actor)

OpenStage Delivers Agatha Christie’s Famed Tale On Lincoln Center’s Magnolia Stage

Reviewed by Tom Jones
April 1, 2018

Invited guests begin arriving by boat at Soldier Island off the coast of Devon, England. They are a mixed bag with no one knowing the others, and not knowing why he/she has been invited. Their host doesn’t show up, and the guests begin to die – to the sounds of the sinister nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldiers.” There is only one house on the tiny island, no harbor, and just a small boat dock where groceries and passengers are dropped off. Does this sound creepy enough? Who is doing the killing – one of the guests, the hired help, or perhaps someone hiding on the island?

OpenStage Theatre’s production of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie James Burns as Philip Lombard, Mark Terzani as General Mackenzie, Dan Tschirhart as Dr. Armstrong, Jack Krause as Rogers, Debbie Swann as Mrs. Rogers, Brikai Cordova as Vera, David Austin-Groen as William Blore, Kiernan Angley as Anthony Marston, Jessica Emerling Crow as Emily Brent, and Greg Clark as Sir LawrenceWargrave in OpenStage Theatre’s production of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Photography by Joe Hovorka Photograph

As the corpses mount, there is concern that the audience just might be included among the carnage. Agatha Christie’s famous whodunit has been around since 1939, turning up as a novel, several movies and plays. It is Christies best seller, with 100 million copies sold. It is the world’s best-selling mystery, and one of the best-selling books of all time. The story has held up well, and the current OpenStage cast is in fine form.

Even better than “fine form.” All eleven of the formers are familiar to Northern Colorado audiences. Each has his/her moment to shine in this cleverly crafted sinister scenario. Kiernan Angley, who delighted audiences in “Romeo and Juliet” a few seasons ago, is great fun as an over-the-top young man, Anthony Marston, with an enormous ego. Other favorites includes James Burns as Philip Lombard (the only guest with a gun), Brikai Cordova as Vera Claythorne (secretary to the host she has never met), and Greg Clark as Sir Lawrence Wargrave.

Kiernan Angley as Anthony Marston in OpenStage Theatre’s production of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Photography by Joe Hovorka Photography

As the guests arrive and learn that their host isn’t going to show up that night, a voice recording of the unknown host advises that his presence is there to haunt the guests. Each is reportedly concealing a death they caused earlier in their lives, but for which they were never punished. On the mantel above the fireplace is a reading of the poem “Ten Little Soldiers Boys,” as well as ten soldier figurines that begin to tumble to their deaths as the cast is reduced.

Dan Tschirhart is excellent as Dr. Armstrong; Jessica Emerling Crow is wonderfully annoying as the religious fanatic who knits incessantly. Mark Terzani is the mysterious General Mackenzie; David Austin-Grӧen is William Blore who may or may not be who he claims to be. Jack Krause and Debbie Swann are very good as the servants, hired by the mysterious host. They are a husband and wife who have secrets of their own. Andrew Cole is Fred Narracott, the man to bring supplies and passengers by boat to the island, never returning as a storm makes transportation to and from the island too hazardous.

Dan Tschirhart as Dr. Armstrong Wargrave, Jessica Emerling Crow as Emily Brent, James Burns as Philip Lombard, Kiernan Angley as Anthony Marston, Mark Terzani as General Mackenzie, Brikai Cordova as Vera and Jack Krause as Rogers in OpenStage Theatre’s production of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Photography by Joe Hovorka Photography

The impressive set design is by James Brookman, with properties and set dressing by Carla Brookman. It is very attractive vacation home with modern conveniences, and a fine view overlooking the stormy seas. When the storm causes the electricity to fail, the guests hover in the semi-light of candles, fearful of each other and of what just might be outside the door. The fear of the unknown turns to near comic melodrama a few times, especially at the conclusion of Act 1 and again at the end of Act 2, when more deaths are announced. Total performance length is less than two and one-half hours, including two ten-minute intermissions. Cast needs time to change costumes and three-act plays were the norm when the play was written in the 1930s. The total experience is a well-produced crowd pleaser. Highly honored performer and director Sydney Parks Smith has directed a spooky telling of the Christie tale. Parks is assisted by the work of James and Paula Brookman (set design and set dressing), Grant Putney (lighting), Victoria Villalobos (sound), Kirsten Hovorka (hair design), Maggie Cummings (makeup design). and Maile Hӧrger-Speetjens (costumes).

Audiences can find out what happened to the eight guests and two housekeepers on the Magnolia Stage through April 28.

“And Then There Were None”
Where: OpenStage Theatre production on the Magnolia Theatre Stage of Lincoln Center
417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins
When: Through April 28, 2018
Tickets: 920/221-6730
Online: www.lctix.com

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