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Motion energizes play’s pointed performance

Artistry and science meld in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

By Leigh E. Rich

Although over a decade old, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park with George” is still a celebration of pure color and light, and the Arizona Repertory Theatre’s rendition of it is dominated by a strong, gifted cast and a stage with more moving parts than a Disneyland ride. Inspired by French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park” is a “challenge to bring order to the whole”—a demanding task which director Daniel Yurgaitis beautifully accomplishes.

Seurat (1859–1891), most famous for his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” perfected a technique of painting which was later deemed Divisionism or Pointillism (although Seurat preferred the appellation Chromo-Luminarist). It is a technique which uses the close juxtaposition of dots of pure color (color “not mixed on the palette, but mixed by the eye”), achieving a greater degree of “luminosity” than the Impressionists.

In the musical, George criticizes the Impressionists’ paintings as having “just density without intensity.”

Seurat was born during a period, Sondheim and Lapine tell us, where science was “gaining influence over our romantic principles.” He studied the scientific writings concerning color and was inspired by the physical laws of color and light.

In “Sunday in the Park with George,” Jules, a fellow artist, explains to George, “You are an artist, not a scientist.” As if the two are mutually exclusive.

He also challenged the conventions of perspective and space. Seurat painted “A Sunday Afternoon,” measuring 81 by 120 inches, using only 11 colors. When it was finally exhibited, Renoir and Monet removed their paintings from the show in protest. A sudden death at 31, Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime—continuing the trend that many artists are only appreciated posthumously.

“A Sunday in the Park with George” is a tribute to this introspective and unappreciated artist. Although inspired by the painter’s life and work, the story and its characters are fictitious. The first act introduces us to the painter, George, and his devoted mistress, Dot (perhaps the subtle humor of Sondheim and Lapine), whom he unintentionally ignores for the sake of his work. Set on a Sunday afternoon on an island in the Seine, the first half of the musical is the elaborate recreation of Seurat’s painting using the cast of characters. His work literally becomes alive. And the insight into the lives and antics of the painting’s models (even if fictitious) gives the painting depth, from perhaps a new perspective.

“A Sunday in the Park with George” is also Sondheim and Lapine’s attempt to convey the pressures of creating art. They tell us and show us that “art isn’t easy.” George is misunderstood by his colleagues and his family. Jules professes through his nasal condescension, “I heard somewhere, he’s painting little specks.” George’s mother, his contemporaries and Dot all urge him to “connect,” but he doesn’t know how.

George exclaims in frustration, “I am not hiding behind my canvas, I am living in it.”

It is this attitude and his willingness for a new perspective that infuses his work with vitality.

These very principles energize the UA production of “A Sunday in the Park with George.” The direction of the talented cast is tight, and they all work and move almost as one. Steven Minow’s and Michelle Pinsley’s exceptional performances as George and Dot dominate the show, but they do not overshadow the other characters. The scene designer, costume designer, scenic artist and the rest of the production staff deserve laudits for this dazzling show. The set is painted in the Pointillism style, and its moving parts (courtesy of motion control specialist David Glenn) produce an atmosphere of magic with George as the artistic creator. We are allowed a glimpse of the world through the passion of the artist.

“A Sunday in the Park with George” is a composition steeped with “order, design, tension, balance and harmony” to which audience members are sure to respond. The cast and crew make their art appear effortless, even though, as James Lapine wrote, “to get that, it’s such hard work.”

Rich, L.E. (1995, November 16). Motion energizes play’s pointed performance. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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