Sondheim isn’t easy. Broadway legends like Stephen Sondheim become, well, legendary because they challenge actors, musicians, directors, and audiences with their works. Sunday in the Park with George reminds us that the genius of Sondheim is in the story structure, phrasing, and music. City Theater Company has tasked itself to put on this challenging Pulitzer Prize–winning musical drama and does a solid job of it.
Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about the process of artistic creation — specifically George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show borders on being an experimental piece, which immediately means some theatergoers may not fully appreciate it. The music is often atmospheric and not front-and-center like traditional musicals. Having said that, the orchestration by Christopher Tolomeo is exquisite. Tolomeo also steps out from behind his piano to portray Louis the baker.
Brendan Sheehan brings strength, insecurity, passion, focus and a tinge of madness to the titular artist who is toiling to excel in his craft. Sheehan’s voice is incredibly powerful plus he nails the difficult syncopated rhythms that are the trademarks of Sondheim’s music. The Dog Song was a show highlight for Sheehan as he crawled on all fours, barking and singing while addressing a stuffed toy dog George is studying for inclusion in his masterpiece.
Driving some of George’s passions is the fiery Dot, played by an excellent Jenna Kuerzi. Dot has loving affection for George as well as impatience with his personality and frailties. Kuerzi wonderfully captures Dot’s struggles with precise movements to complement her superb singing voice. The parting lovers’ duet We Do Not Belong Together was haunting, with Kuerzi and Sheehan melding their voices beautifully.
The remaining characters in Act I are all subjects George is studying while they enjoy their Sundays in the park. From young women looking for love to a disgruntled boatman to a child at play, the cast gives real depth to two-dimensional painted figures. The audience gains an appreciation for the subjects with brief snippets into their lives.
The cast includes Jim Burns, Dylan Geringer, Jeff Hunsicker, Mary Catherine Kelley, Kerry Kristine McElrone, Paul McElwee, Patrick O’Hara, Dominic Santos, Grace Tarves, and George Tietze. Tonya Baynes and young daughter Layla Baynes round out the excellent company of actors. The interplay between O’Hara and Tietze as American tourists who dislike France but love its pastries was pure comedic gold.
Co-directors Michael Gray and Tom Shade have made some interesting choices and most of them work. However, setting up the show to be something of a play looking at itself never gained traction in my eyes. Many of the props were inspired, like the cutout army officer and the aforementioned toy dog. The clever costume designs by Kerry Kristine McElrone and Lauren Peters began in monochrome. As George brings his inspiration from his head to the canvas, bright colors appear in clothing and accessories.
In Act II, blacks and grays return as the story moves a century into the future. The second act is a coda, of sorts, and even involves some playful audience interaction. It’s a nice way to look back at the painted figures, the artist, the process, art in general and interpersonal relationships.
This production probably isn’t for everyone, but it is a well-done inspection into the difficulty and nuance of artistic creation. “Art isn’t easy/Having just the vision’s no solution.”
Sunday in the Park with George will play Thursday through Sunday (December 7-10) and the following Thursday through Saturday (December 14-16). All performances are at 8:00pm except for the 2:00pm Sunday matinee on December 10.
Be aware that the show runs a solid 2.5 hours which includes one 15-minute intermission. The Black Box is located at 4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE 19801. Tickets are priced from $15 to $40 and can be purchased online or at the box office.