You have to wonder if Rep Artistic Director Eric Rosen didn’t lose more than a few night’s sleep over those lyrics. After all, he had to figure out a way to shoe-horn Stephen Sondheim‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (now thru Oct 4) into the confines of Atkins Auditorium, the part of the Nelson-Atkins Museum you’ve never been to (so that’s why it’s called that).
The good news is that Eric and his gang of artists and artisans got it done, hammering together a new production of this cerebral show to open the Rep’s 51st season. “Art isn’t easy,” Sondheim tells us; but this SUNDAY IN THE PARK rises to the challenge and finishes the hat.
I have to admit, I saw the Broadway original, wherein Mandy Patinkin, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance, tore the place down with his intense portrayal of French painter George Seurat, an artist obsessed with combining dots of color (pointillism, it’s called) to create paintings of shimmering light. When Mandy assembled the actors into a re-creation of Seurat’s masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte,” it was one of the most thrilling act one finales I’d ever seen– still is.
Didn’t see that at the Rep’s production– there was no room for it (and the actors didn’t really look like the painting’s characters anyway). While that was a mild disappointment, the Rep SUNDAY IN THE PARK more than made up for it in act two, in which Seurat’s great grandson has to deal with his own challenges making art in the 21st century. I actually liked the Rep’s act two –and the whole experience, over all– better than the Broadway production.
It helps that act two starts off in a museum lecture hall– just like Atkins Auditorium. Contemporary George’s new work– Chromalume 7 it’s called– is a nifty video vamping on the dots in “La Grande Jatte,” blowing them up into a meditation on color and light. The Chromalume on Broadway was a Robbie the Robot-looking laser as I recall— not nearly as cool as the Rep’s full-stage video, designed by Jason Thompson, whose work contributed so much to their landmark production VENICE.
Act two George faces the classic artist’s dilemma– keep growing as you stay true to your vision and passion or repeat your successes and cash the checks. We know where Seurat stood on that subject; that made the first half less meaty. Grappling with this issue is at the heart of SUNDAY IN THE PARK. To his credit, Rosen makes this the focus of his production, instead of the big theatrics at the end of act one.
Clybourne Elder doesn’t share Mandy’s manic energy and wild obsession with Seurat’s work; that makes his act one George a bit lethargic. But he breathes honest life into the push-pull world of renowned artists in act two. Creative folks will appreciate the arc of that story and recognize the tension in their own worlds. No surprise that George chucks the Chromalume to follow his heart– this is, after all, a musical by Stephen Sondheim, the great non-repeater of Broadway.
Musical director Anthony Edwards does a nice job keeping the ensemble on top of Sondheim’s clever, intricate score; and he gets a whole lot of sound out of two keyboards, a reed and two strings. Technical elements are all up to the Rep’s usual standards– even more impressive, given the limitations of the space (the Rep had to move out of their UMKC campus home because of renovations). And Clybourne’s 15 or so fellow players all deliver the goods nicely.
No doubt, Eric and his KC Rep team had to grapple with this choice themselves– do another smallish show at their downtown Copaken Stage while Spencer Theatre is getting fixed or reach out and try something new and different in a venue that’s never had a show this big. The museum hook –a show about a famous visual artist — was a cool one. I’m glad the Rep, like George, took the plunge, rather than make the safer choice.