Stephen Sondheim became discouraged with musical theater upon the failure of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. He began his collaboration with James Lapine after seeing Lapine’s Twelve Dreams (1981), which rekindled Sondheim’s spirit. Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, which is now playing in Murphey School Auditorium, near the Historic Oakwood section of Raleigh, NC, was their first effort together.
It won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only eight musicals to win that prize and numerous other professional awards. Sunday in the Park with George is a meditation on artists, individuality, community, and dedication. The music is atonal; and the plot is a series of vignettes, used to emulate the composition of Pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s famous 1884-86 painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Fictionalized as the story of Seurat creating the painting, including interaction with various of the people represented in it, the first act peers into the painter’s experiences with friends, family, and his mistress/model, as well the relations that develop among some of these subjects. Emphasized are his dedication to his new form of painting, which attracted attention, much of it critical, and his alienation from both family and friends who would not understand his scientific approach to the then new style of painting known as Impressionism, and his inadvertent founding of an even newer style dubbed Neo-Impressionism.
In the second act, Seurat’s fictitious American great-grandson, also named George, encounters the same life problems 100 years later. Both French artist Georges Seurat and his great-grandson George are played by Tyler Graeper, who brings great focus and formality to Georges, and very contemporary looseness to 20th century George, capturing easily the essence of the two men.
The mistress/model Dot and her daughter Marie are similarly created by one actress. Natalie Reder, whose singing made us understand her plight with a melodic voice and true human passion. All the rest of the cast also appear in both acts as characters of the two centuries.
There are several other notable performances from this fine cast. Fred Corlett as Louis the baker in the 19th century and Billy Webster, art patron in 1984, delivers the kind of fine portrayals that we have been seeing from him for many years.
Alex Donaldson portrays Jules — a composite of Seurat’s contemporary colleagues — and Bob Greenberg, a 1980s art museum director, and does commendable work in both parts.
We were wowed by Lenore Field, an amazing Hillary Clinton double as Blair Daniels in both demeanor and looks, in Act II, and as an old woman in a wheelchair in Act I who turns out to be Georges Seurat’s carping mother. She ensnares the sense of loss and passing of time felt by many elderly people.
Not listed in the program’s cast of characters was Piedmont Laureate in 2012, local playwright, and actor Ian L. Finley, who stands with great French military bearing as one of the soldiers in the painting and also presents as a contemporary artist in 1984.
The set, by scenic and lighting designer Ed Intemann, is a perfect representation of art. A bare stage is backed by a lattice grid that starts the show with a number of differently dimensioned white, blank canvases. As the story develops they are turned around to reveal various segments of the finished painting. Subtle shifts in lighting establish moods throughout the show.
Bonnie Raddatz’s period and modern costumes accurately depict the times and places, with marvelous pastel colors taken from Seurat’s famous work.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical numbers are supported by a superb trio consisting of Bill Pashby (cello), Jack Pashby (violin), and music director/pianist Christian Stahr.
Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis has executed a delightful evening’s entertainment with this absorbing and stimulating production.
SECOND OPINION: April 12th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/04/sunday-in-the-park-shows-its-age-but-still-entertains/; April 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7370, April 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article18135974.html; and April 8th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/sunday-in-the-park-with-george/Event?oid=4372076.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at 7:30 p.m. April 16-18, 2 p.m. April 19, 7:30 p.m. April 23-25, 2 p.m. April 26, 7:30 p.m. April 30-May 2, and 2 p.m. May 3 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604, near Historic Oakwood.
TICKETS: $25 ($20 seniors 65+ and $15 students and active-duty military personnel), except all tickets are $15 on Thursdays, tickets are $15 per person for groups of 10 or more, and $5 Student Rush tickets will be sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain, to students with valid ID.
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.
SHOW: http://burningcoal.org/sunday-in-the-park-with-george/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/904720722912742/.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Long Street Media): https://vimeo.com/123139413.
STUDY GUIDE: http://burningcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/Sunday-in-the-Park-with-George-Study-Guide1.pdf.
2015 MAIN-STAGE SHOWS: http://burningcoal.org/mainstage/.
PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.
Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Broadway and 1990 West End musical): http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000072 (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheimguide.com/sunday.html (The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://ibdb.com/show.php?id=8418 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_in_the_Park_with_George (Wikipedia).
Stephen Sondheim (New York City-born composer and lyricist, born 1930): http://sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.sondheimguide.com/ (The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=12430 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).
James Lapine (Mansfield, OH-born playwright and director, born 1949): http://www.jameslapine.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=6607 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lapine (Wikipedia).
Jerome Davis (Burning Coal’s founding artistic director): http://burningcoal.org/jerome-davis/ (Burning Coal bio) and https://www.facebook.com/jerome.davis.5686 (Facebook page).
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.