Sunday in the Park with George
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)
Los Altos Stage Company
As each word is announced by the artist whose science of painting is guided by these exacting principles, the members of his most famous composition move into place, aided by his adjustments as needed to get just the right placement of head, hem, or parasol. And then when he finally he says, “Harmony,” Stephen Sondheim’s glorious “Sunday” sounds forth as a magnetic set of waves that draws us quietly toward an eventual climax of melodiously blended voices in a suddenly arresting volume,
“People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday.”
For me, no matter how many times I see this incredibly moving sequence, I cannot hold back the tears streaming down my cheek. The creation of art that occurs in front of our eyes in Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) Sunday in the Park with George is unmatched in any other play or musical (in my opinion). Gloriously inspired by the stage direction of Alex Perez and the musical direction of Brian Allan Hobbs, an absolutely stellar Los Altos Stage Company cast singing in emotion-laden harmony visually becomes in three-dimensional reality George Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
George-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was a post-Impressionist painter, famous today as the creator of the pointillist technique of painting where hundreds of thousands of multi-colored dots blend at a distance into a picture full of rich hues, light, and shadows. During his too-short lifetime, he was largely shunned by the established art community and never had a major exhibit.
The near-maniacal approach to his dotted painting, the adherence to a non-stop work ethic that precluded much time away from his sketchbook or canvas, and the obsession for perfection that meant attention to every detail of a model’s being are all magnificently captured in the music and lyrics by Sondheim in the song “Color and Light.” As George stabs his brush as if piercing the canvas with a sharp tool, he sings in rapid progression, “More red, a little more red, blue, blue, blue, blue … There’s only color and light, yellow and white.”
Rob Cadwallader captures George’s fanatically determined approach to art and life as he both sketches on the shores of the river and as he – in his darkened studio – pointedly attacks dot-by-dot a portion of a see-through canvas, facing us to provide a first-hand view of his incredible intensity. As he jabs more red and blue to produce purple, he sings with a voice crisp, clear, and convincing of his character’s compulsive nature. He clips off the Sondheim rush of lyrics with ease and yet with purpose, digging into the notes with a voice rich in zeal and intensity that can both belt and whisper with the same high quality of tones. His beautiful tenor is lustrously natural in tone, never sounding forced or false.
When George is sketching on a Sunday in the park amongst a bevy of lovers, soldiers, strollers, and even his mother and her nurse that will eventually make it onto his completed canvas, he at one point becomes two lazing dogs (Spot and Fifi) who yap and yep, ruff and gruff together about their Sunday adventures and woes. Rob Cadwallader alternates delightfully between Spot’s back-of-throat, rounded notes and Fifi’s falsetto yips as he both plays puppet master to their cut-out forms and becomes each dog, wallowing on the ground or sniffing in the air between barks.
Later in his studio, his intensity of voice and manner only increases with wonderful vocal staccatos that speak of satisfied victory as he delivers “Finishing the Hat” (“Look, I made a hat … where there never was a hat”). As wonderful a depiction that I personally have ever seen on any stage from New York to San Francisco, Rob Cadwallader is a thoroughly credible George Seurat – an artist who sacrificed everything else in his life in order to create art unlike any that had ever been created before.
And perhaps the greatest of his sacrifices is Dot, the woman who adores him even as she dislikes the hours of modeling in the hot sun in her heavy-material, midnight blue, bustle dress. As Alycia Adame sings of “A trickle of sweat, the back of the head; he always does this, now the foot is dead,” her Dot bemoans her “Sunday in the Park with George.” She displays an enormous array of telling, facial gymnastics as she also rattles off the rapid lyrics without one word being missed by us as audience. In a brilliant directorial move, Dot at one point steps out of her bustle (which in fact is statuesque in form and nature) and saunters seductively in her bloomers to the ever-busy George, singing with impressive resonance as she strokes his neck and shoots arrows from her darting eyes of both love and vexation.
Alycia Adame continuously sparkles and excels in her role as Dot. With time at the Follies being more to her liking than another night watching George try to get the right shade of black out of red, yellow, and blue, Dot switches back-and-forth her mood of voice and manner as she weighs in song (“Everybody Loves Louie”) sticking with George or not. Her alternative is the more boring, but also much more affectionate and attending Louis the baker (a big-smiling, mustached, and croissant-bearing Bryan Moriarty). When Dot does decide it is time finally to leave George, her “We Do Not Belong Together” is sung in heart-ripping notes expressing both her deep frustration and her sadness.
When in the second act she becomes an old lady in wheelchair who is supposedly the daughter that Dot and George have before Dot leaves George to go to America with Louis, Alycia Adame remarkably transforms into a ninety-eight-year-old Marie, grandmother of George’s great-grandson. Her singing voice is now that of an aged woman’s high-pitched, slightly shaky vocals that again touch our hearts in “Children and Art.”
In this second act, the elderly Marie tells her mother, Dot — now embedded behind her on the wall, forever in the famed, Seurat picture — of her grandson, also an experimenting, controversial artist named George who is exhibiting a controversial Chromlolume #7. That second George’s challenges as an avant-garde artist who must also worry about the business matters of pleasing money-generous patrons and foundations is the focus of Act Two. With a compelling voice that zings with zest, Rob Cadwallader is once again extraordinary in every regard as the great-grandson of the earlier George.
He and the entire company are especially exceptional in “Putting It Together,” where the business of making art becomes all too real as a pressing pack of patrons want to be in-your-face close to the artist they support while he would himself rather be anywhere else but in their midst. As George moves close to us as audience to sing in fully animated style about the pressures of “building up the image” as an artist in order to raise needed funds, potential patrons banter him with their advice and evaluations – their talking to several, full-size Georges that have unfurled in canvas from above.
The parallels between the two Georges’ mannerisms and talents, their doubting critics, and their lost loves are the crowning touches in James Lapin’s book that combine with Stephen Sondheim’s astounding music and clever-beyond-words lyrics to make the musical such a favorite among many self-declared fanatics of the modern musical (including yours truly).
Director Alex Perez and the entire Creative Team have insured that the Los Altos Stage production is one as visually striking as it is musically and story-wise. Skip Epperson’s scenic design cleverly includes five, hung picture frames with shades that turn into various views of the Island of La Grande Jatte. Those shades and multiple scrims that drop into George’s studio to serve as his easels have been beautifully painted by Gary Landis and Paulino Deleal and are truly their own highlights of the evening. JoAnn Birdsall brings the multiple characters from the Seurat’s famous painting to full life through her remarkable costumes, adding touches of humor and designing the initial dress that Dot leaves behind to prance about in her nineteenth-century undies. Aya Matsumoto’s lighting design captures the outdoors of the island and its changing times of day, the closed-in feel of George’s studio, and the dappled shadows of standing under trees to escape summer’s hot sun.
Along with the aforementioned talents of the two leads, thirteen other actors fill the staged canvas of the first act and the modern art show of the second, ably playing characters often full of delightful quirk, spunk, and peculiarity. . Linda Piccone is a firm-minded, Old Lady on the lake’s shore who is actually George’s mother, combining her mezzo-soprano with his tenor in “Beautiful” as she urges George to capture the scene of life around her before it (and perhaps she) fades away.
Michael Rhone is a rather pompous, fellow artist named Jules who, along with his wife – the equally stuck-up, nose-in-air Yvonne (Chloë Angst) – sings in “No Life” how George’s room-filling painting has “no presence.” But Jules is also flirty in the park, sneaking off behind the bushes with the Old Lady’s feisty, full-voiced Nurse (Vanessa Alvarez). She is also hilarious as a dripping-in-Southern-accent tourist (“Mrs.”) whose favorite part about Paris is the puffed pastry (with one of Bryan Moriarty’s several roles being her equally funny husband, “Mr.”).
On the shaded shore of the lake is also a muscled, grouchy Boatman (John Duarte) whose raspy singing voice challenges George’s artistic perception in “The Day Off.” A bumbling, courting Soldier (Andrew Kracht) with his full-sized, wooden and quite mute fellow cadet acquire new girlfriends – Celeste 1 (Kate Matheson) and Celeste 2 (Brennah Kemmerly) – who reel them in while fishing at the shore (and gossiping in snappy notes of song),. David Mister is German-accented Franz who is a servant with an attitude of mighty superiority over anyone he encounters and with eyes that wander frequently from his wife, Frieda (Emily Acosta). All of these also double in other, modern-day roles once the Act Two scene shifts to the second George’s exhibition.
In total-cast numbers like “The Day Off,” “It’s Hot Up Here,” and the aforementioned “Putting It Together,” Director Alex Perez finds many ways to maximize the humorous interactions, complaints, and unsaid thoughts made public of the varied characters of Seurat’s painting. In all the musical’s numbers, Brian Allan Hobbs’ five-piece orchestra could easily fool us that there are several times more of the fine musicians behind the stage’s back scrim. Their interplay of instrumental notes with those being sung on stage does full justice and more to the music of Sondheim.
But in the end, it is the combination of this fine orchestra’s music with the strongly sung harmonies of the full ensemble in those two, act-ending renditions of “Sunday” that I will long carry with me as I continue to relish in the days to come this must-see, Los Altos Stage Company’s stroll through the trees of a small suburban park on an island in the river on an ordinary Sunday.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Sunday in the Park with George continues through June 25, 2023, in production by Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA. Tickets are available at https://losaltosstage.org/ , in person at the Box Office Thursday and Friday 3 – 6 p.m. or ½ hour before performances, and by phone at 650941-0551.
Photo Credits: Christian Pizzirani