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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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Illusion vs. reality
George Seurat was actually only 25 years old when he began work on his “Grande
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
For more information: Arvadacenter.org