Until now, we haven’t had the good fortune to see a local theater produce the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George. Now that situation has been rectified--and in most impressive fashion--with the Manatee Players’ production of this show about the making of art.
The art most obviously in question is pointillist painter George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte--a piece so familiar to most of us that it’s startlingly fresh to visit a time when it was new, and when its maker struggled to bring it to fruition. Seurat’s painting, and the people in it, from servants to soldiers to a boatman, are the focus of Act One, with some fictionalized characters thrown in to flesh out his own personal life.
Thanks to the large-scale projections designed by Marc Lalosh, we are really able to view that painting in progress. As Seurat (Steve Dawson) sits in the park, drawing his long-suffering model and mistress, Dot (Dianne Dawson), we see a tree from that famous scene being erased, or a sailboat moving on the water in the background. (Since Dawson is also a visual artist in his own right offstage, it adds to the thrill of the experience that he’s actually sketching in his notebook, and in the right seats you can catch a glimpse of that up close.)
Seurat is so intent on his art, in fact, that it’s hard for him to focus on anything or anyone else. While Dot longs to go to the Folies after a day spent posing and sweating in her elaborate bustle dress, George is mostly insensitive to her pleas; he's too busy stabbing his canvas with his paintbrush, too obsessed with filling that open white space every creative type faces.
In Act II, a supposed great-grandson of Seurat’s, also named George (and also played by Steve Dawson) is dealing with the world of making art in the 1980s--a time when as much creative energy goes into making a deal, schmoozing critics and curators and financiers, as in a studio. His grandmother, Marie (played by Dianne Dawson), understands, as she sings movingly about Children and Art being all we leave behind us. But she wants the children for childless George as much as she wants the art.
There’s so much more one could say about the concept of the show itself, but it’s time to Move On (the title of another song in Sunday in the Park) to the specific production, which is an amazing achievement for a community theater with a small stage and a small budget--but big ambitions. Artistic director Rick Kerby expects great things from his cast and crew, and he gets them, from the aforementioned designs of Lalosh (enjoy seeing many digital copies of George the second in the party scene featuring the show’s best-known song, Putting It Together) to the costumes by David W. Walker (which mirror the ones actually seen in the Seurat painting) to the power of Rick Bogner’s musical direction to the anchoring performances of both Dawsons, outstanding in both of their dual roles.
Not every musical theater fan is a Sondheim aficionado, and Sunday in the Park is admittedly more complex (not only intellectually and musically, but emotionally) than the average run. That’s what makes this production so noteworthy--and so worthy of your time. The show continues through Oct. 10; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.