The yearning for nostalgia is usually skewed by rose-tinted glasses; however, there are exceptional instances when a work deserves to be yearned for because it stands the test of time and creatively exceeds most offerings in its wake, prompting the expression, “they don’t make them like this anymore.” Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, which originally premiered in 1984 and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a year later, is more than just mere entertainment; in fact, to call it such would be an insult. It is required viewing as it powerfully speaks to the soul, sweeping the eyes and ears of its audience members into the gorgeously vivid goings-on of a painting that can, to this day, be appreciated at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The masterpiece is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a late 19th-century portrait by French Neoimpressionist Georges Seurat who used pointillism to painstakingly fashion characters in Victorian-era petticoats, top hats, canes, parasols, pets, and more, at a park overlooking the Seine. The ingenuity of Seurat’s work is equaled by the late Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, as well as James Lapine’s book, which brings the multichromatic characters of Seurat’s painting to life, mixing some facts about his biography with a fictional narrative forged by themes relating to obsession, sacrifice, remembrance, and pride. It is often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but this one — especially as lovingly brush-stroked as it is at the Pasadena Playhouse — is worth an infinite number as it doesn’t just transfix the observer, it transforms.
Sarna Lapine (niece to James), who directed the 2017 Broadway revival, returns for this version, which features an exquisite orchestration by music director Andy Einhorn whose band performs behind a diaphanous curtain whereupon stunning projections by Tal Yarden depict, bit by bit, how George’s famous painting comes along over a few years. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design soars in its simplicity, deferring mostly to Clint Ramos’ prepossessing costumes, made more brilliant by Ken Billington’s lighting (prepare to be bowled over in Act II), as if they were peeled right off Seurat’s canvas. Not to be understated is Alison Solomon’s choreography which has the subjects standing and schvitzing in unison, alive forever yet paradoxically frozen, in poignant tableaus.
This is arguably Sondheim’s greatest work — and his vintage syncopation and ingeniously unconventional rhymes (e.g., “it’s hot and it’s monotonous”) are impeccably highlighted in Pasadena where, in 1884, the work-obsessed George is, in a sense, directing and interacting with the very characters he is creating. The one he labors the most over — including her distinct hat — is Dot, the love of his life, who can’t help but be attracted to not just George’s unceasing passion for his pad but the emotional unavailability that comes with it. Ancillary characters including the cantankerous Old Lady (mother to George) with her Nurse, the high-society artist Jules who disapproves of George’s work, his socialite wife Yvonne, along with their servants Franz and Frieda, a pair of sassy ingenues named Celeste, two peculiar soldiers, a funny but impertinent American couple, a cynical Boatman, and Louis the friendly baker, among others, surround the escalating conflict between George and Dot.
While Act I satisfyingly resolves on its own, the even more self-aware Act II continues 100 years later as a modern snapshot where George’s great-grandson (also named George), an inventor and sculptor, is pathologically pulled perhaps more by the need to gain the approval of others than by a rapturous addiction to his work. Nonetheless, the frailties that encumber the artistry of this George highlights and brings a family history — as imperfect as it is and of which his grandmother Marie (daughter of the original George) is proud of — full circle.
The Good Wife’s Graham Phillips is phenomenal as he completely surrenders himself to the complexities and flaws that underlie George, a role originated by Mandy Patinkin and most recently undertaken by Jake Gyllenhaal. The moment Phillips’ George delicately greets Krystina Alabado’s Dot and her parasol, who patiently poses in the sweltering heat, the audience is immediately enthralled. The push-and-pull ripple of emotions between them is palpable and is expressed with an impeccable enunciation that successfully meets the difficult demands of Sondheim’s swift-and-successive lyrics. Through the earnestness in Phillips’ eyes, as he gestures with his hand and deliberates on every speck of color, like in “Color and Light,” the audience feels both George’s otherworldly gift and his affliction. Similarly, when Alabado intensely and fervently pleads with George to fight for her — or say anything for that matter — in “We Do Not Belong Together,” Dot’s heartbreak is absorbed straight into the audience’s collective heart.
In Act II, Phillips’ George has similarities to his great-grandfather in Act I but is more socially conscious and willing to play politics; the subtle differences in this George are carried out cogently by Phillips. Alabado, on the other hand, changes directions entirely, becoming the 98-year-old, wheelchair-confined Marie who is characterized by a sweet awkwardness and dry sense of humor. When her Marie movingly sings “Children and Art,” the levies holding back tears for many observers break; suffice it to say, Alabado, whose interpretation stands alone from Bernadette Peters’, strikes several chords that would be left untouched by other, less talented performers.
While the premise primarily subsists on Dot/Marie and George, the supporting players are crucial for fleshing out a milieu that would otherwise feel incomplete. For example, Liz Larsen is heart-rending as the Old Lady who misses how the park, which will have to incorporate the Eiffel Tower, used to look as she is comforted by her son George who reassesses the problem in “Beautiful.” As the Nurse to the Old Lady, Jennie Greenberry adeptly inhabits the part and elevates the scenery. In addition, Michael Manuel, who also portrays the likable museum director Bob in Act II, convincingly communicates Jules’ imperiousness and narrowmindedness as an artist; likewise, Emily Tyra emotes the highfalutin nature of Yvonne with an operatic timbre before switching gears and becoming the hysterically disquieted composer of George’s light machine, the Chromolume #7, in the musical’s latter half. The onstage daughter of Jules and Yvonne, Louise, is rendered with elan by Erica Gonzalez.
Franz and Frieda, who are played by Jason Michael Snow and Deborah Lew, are a charmingly distinctive and winsome match despite marital challenges. Notably, Snow’s Franz earns laughs when he questions why he should “verk,” and then draws the biggest guffaw when his Dennis in Act II, George’s overworked tech assistant, discloses that he should quit working to go back to NASA.
Robert Knight’s Louis is highly personable, though he is always “there” unlike the inaccessible George. His agreeable mannerisms, with baked goods in tow, fabulously frames the rationale for why “Everybody Loves Louis.” Moreover, Juliana Sloan and Jenni Barber, the two Celestes, along with Trevor James and Armand Akbari, the able and deaf-mute soldiers, respectively, furnish the melancholic story with much-needed silliness and levity.
Lastly, not to be overlooked, are Brian Calì as the eyepatch-wearing Boatman who garners chuckles with his lack of filter, and Alexandra Melrose and Jimmy Smagula as the riotous American couple who, despite being enamored with Paris’ pastries, are philistines and can’t wait to go back to the states; these two rekindle their animated stage presence in Act II as Harriet and Billy. As a singular unit, the ensemble maneuver and sing in an intertwined harmony with one another, such as in “Sunday” and “It’s Hot Up Here.”
After scoring what many considered to be Southern California’s show of the year with Ragtime in 2019, the Pasadena Playhouse has a strong case for the same distinction in 2023 with Sunday in the Park with George; it is, indeed, no ordinary Sunday. It is a production that has circumspectly pieced together Sondheim’s indelible music and lyrics, which, on their own, paint purposeful pictures, but, in conjunction with Georges Seurat and his enduring contribution, amount to a celestial experience that leaves its attendees in a state of devastated breathlessness.
The humanity presented by its once two, but now three-dimensional characters, bittersweet as it is, underscores an artist’s self-imposed sacrifice for his work, and a reclaimed lineage fondly connected to him over a century. All this, and more, is fully realized by a cast that comprises an ideal “order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry, and balance,” and could pay no better homage to the legacies of Sondheim and Seurat.
Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Sunday in the Park with George runs through Sunday, March 19th. For more information about the show, and to purchase tickets, please visit: pasadenaplayhouse.org