SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
I’m totally grateful to the Pasadena Playhouse for giving me (and all of us SoCal denizens,) the opportunity to finally see this very celebrated Stephen Sondheim musical! Sunday In The Park With George was first produced on Broadway in 1984 and I can’t believe that my uber-cultured self had never seen it. How did that happen? Growing up in New York, I’ve rarely missed a professional musical since I was four! So this was a treat.
The venerable Playhouse is presenting the show as part of their “Sondheim Celebration,” a six-month festival of the composer’s work. Broadway star Larry Owens, (whom you may know better from his recurring role on Abbott Elementary, as I do,) is doing one night of Sondheim’s music there this month and one in March, and then next up at the theatre in April is A Little Night Music, which I love! And then—wait for it—the great Bernadette Peters will be in concert there for two nights in June!!! Oh..ma…ga! (All the info is on their site, the link to which is at the bottom of this review.)
Of course I loved that last week-end’s opening of Sunday In The Park With George was on…Sunday. I even tried to find a friend named George to go with me, and I wanted to go to the park before or after the show. Alas, neither of those desires came to fruition.
But no worries–the show itself was enough for me. I really appreciated that this was a full-scale production of the musical, which is rare in Los Angeles. I love to see more actors and musicians working!
In case you don’t know the premise, Sunday In The Park With George a very fictionalized* story of French post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat working on his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in the late 1880s.
*[Note: Of course, I researched the topic as soon as I got home, and was surprised to discover that none of the story is true, outside of that Georges Seurat did paint those pictures, of course! I hate when shows or movies tell a false story of a famous person’s life because most audiences accept the tale as true. The only case in which I can accept such falsehoods is if anyone ever presents my life story and makes the storyline that Hugh Jackman was in love with me!]
I loved learning about that classic Seurat painting, and his development of the Pointillism technique, (which is basically forming dots of different colors into one image.) Who would have expected a Broadway musical to fill-in my art education a bit? It was such an interesting idea to base a musical on an old school work of art! I love when two symbiotic disciplines go extra hand-in-hand like that. Watching Georges Seurat’s work come to life in front of my eyes was a joy.
The visuals are actually what I enjoyed the most about Sunday In The Park With George. And they were made even more special by the Pasadena Playhouse using the distinguished painting as the “step and repeat,” which is the large banner that people stand in front of on a red carpet to have their photos taken at a big event. What fun that was for everyone! [Note: The real work is now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, in case you’re curious.]
I actually enjoyed all the “art” aspects of the show. And seeing the players all get into their places in the “painting” at the end of Act I was akin to watching Pageant of the Masters, which recreates famous works of art with live people. [Note: Seating at the Pasadena Playhouse really matters for this engagement, so keep that in mind when ordering your tix. I was sitting sort-of far back, and for the entire first act, I was behind a guy with the most giant head, so I could barely see what was happening on the stage! When a group of people who had been seated next me left at intermission, I moved over and finally saw the entire stage, which was a revelation, even though the second half had only one brief glimpse of one of those beautiful tableaus featured in the first.]
And that brings me to the totally unexpected second half, which I have to admit I didn’t love. I was all into the whole 1884-ness of the tale, and then all of a sudden, it was a whole different show. Act II takes place in 1984, (when this show was first produced,) and is all about Seurat’s daughter, who’s now a nonagenarian, (after being born in Act I,) and her look-alike grandson (played by the same actor, of course.) But, since those people are entirely fictional, I don’t understand why the narrative even went there. After being transported to a long ago magical island in France for the first hour or so, I wasn’t ready to experience modern-day realities. And I just didn’t find it entertaining.
My friend, Angela, (who’s perhaps the classiest woman I’ve ever known,) felt the same way. We also both noted that, although many of this show’s moments are considered comical, we each chuckled only a time or two during the entire presentation, and never fully laughed.
But that was really okay—we were both thrilled to finally see the classic show. And just because it’s so revered does not mean that everyone has to love it. I admired it, but it just didn’t get to my soul, as so many other musicals have done.
I’m still excited to now finally be in with the Sondheim in-crowd. And I was glad to find out where his very well-known song, Putting It Together, comes from. (This musical, of course!)
Speaking of the music, the live on-stage orchestra is the best part of the show to me; they are fabulous! And I adore that there’s a harp in there! Exquisite.
Also really beautiful is that the environs of Seurat’s work, and some of the paintings themselves, are projected onto a giant sheet of sheer material in front of the orchestra. So you can often see everything at the same time–the musicians, the actors, and the paintings. I love that!
As good as the Pasadena Playhouse’s presentation of Sunday In The Park With George is, I was wondering what made the musical such a hit in New York to begin with. And then it came to me—it starred Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, who both have voices blessed by angels. This production’s Graham Phillips and Krystina Alabado are both excellent singers; however, I don’t feel they haunt the audience as the original pair did.* But, in their defense, can the originals ever be lived up to? (Truth be told, I’m not a major Patinkin fan, as my mother was, but I totally understand and respect the excellence he brings to any production. And, very sadly for me, I saw Bernadette perform in person only once, when I was a teen-ager, but I was instantly blown away. I can only dream of ever seeing her perform again. I have a feeling it’s a religious experience!)
* [Note: The day after this Sunday In The Park With George opening night, I made the mistake of watching a video of a special concert performance of Bernadette and Mandy duetting on Move On, and let me tell you, even at their advanced ages now, I felt they were going to explode off the stage!!! So that’s the standard to which I’m comparing the performances of Graham Phillips and Krystina Alabado.]
But here’s some fun info: I’ve actually seen a lot of Graham’s work over the years, (I bet that many of you have, as well,) and I had no idea of it when I was watching the show! He’s such a grown-up now!
I looked him up after the show, (because I had no time to read the program before the curtain on opening night—too much excitement going on,) and I was shocked to discover that I saw him first as the teen-age son on The Good Wife and then as a privileged creep on Riverdale! (Don’t judge my love for the CW!) And he was also in the dreadful The Ten Commandments musical. I don’t remember him in that show at the Kodak, but actually, I don’t remember anything from that show outside of Adam Lambert because I just about passed-out when I heard him sing! (Adam’s voice is still the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, after all these years! And that I’ve known him personally since then is just icing on the cake.) Now that I realize who Graham is, I want to go see the show again, so I can pay more attention to him! (And from closer to the stage, of course.)
So to sum-up Sunday In The Park With George, we have Stephen Sondheim’s music, a classy production from the Pasadena Playhouse, and a star who I’m sure many of you will recognize. That’s a lot of goodness going on for one night at the theatre!
This is actually how much was still running through my head about this production when I got home–for the first time in two months, Mr. X and I forgot to do Wordle that night!
And here’s one fun little obscure note that some of my fellow bi-coasters might find interesting–coincidentally, Sunday In The Park With George just opened at the same time in my native, and very hip Brooklyn! And the run is about as long. I love that my two beloved cities have similar sensibilities!!!
Sunday In The Park With George running through March 19, 2023
Pasadena Playhouse 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena