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Kensington Arts Theatre Sunday in the Park with George

By • Feb 13th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Sunday in the Park with George
Kensington Arts Theatre
Kensington Town Center, Kensington, MD
Through March 3rd
2:40 with one intermission
$20/$17 Senior and Students/$13 Kensington Residents
Reviewed February 11th, 2012

“Art isn’t easy,” declares one of the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Nor, the play makes clear, are artists, either on themselves or those lucky/unfortunate enough to be around them. Certainly the show itself isn’t easy, either for casts or production staffs. Sondheim is notoriously difficult for singers, and Sunday is one of his most challenging scores. Sunday is no easier for designers and technicians requiring, among other things, the staging and technical reproduction of pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s best-known work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT) is one of the few community theaters in the area with the resources and chops to pull it off successfully.

Act 1 of Sunday takes place in 19th century Paris, as Seurat works to compete the painting. Act 2 takes place mostly in New York in 1983, as George, Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, struggles with the 20th century art market and his own creative block. Each cast member plays someone in both the 19th and 20th century worlds, and the cast differentiates their first and second act characters effectively.

In the lead role, Ryan Burke gets the passion — particularly the anger — and focus of Georges, who sees the color and light of the world substantially better than the full humanity of the people around him. He is equally convincing as the less confident, questioning George, who feels more acutely than his ancestor the difficulty of connecting with others. He delivers Sondheim’s complex lyrics with consistent clarity and is generally strong vocally, though sometimes sounding pushed in his upper register.

As Dot, Seurat’s lover in Act 1 and Marie, George’s grandmother in Act 2, Farrell Parker is even better, shining as brightly in the role as anyone this side of Bernadette Peters. As ambivalent about love as any classic Sondheim character, Dot adores Georges for his eyes and how he looks at her and for what he teaches her about how to see the world. Knowing she will never be as important to him as his painting, she leaves him for the kindness of Louis the baker (Wade Corder). Parker’s voice, articulation, line readings, and reactions are first-rate. As Marie, though an extraordinarily youthful-looking 98-year old, she has a touching moment in “Children and Art.”

Parker and Burke are supported by a large and able ensemble, whose members play characters in the painting in Act 1 and denizens of the contemporary art world in Act 2. They do quality work throughout. Karen Fleming, as Seurat’s mother and art critic Blair Daniel, and Eric Jones, as the soldier (no doubt a cousin of Karl Magnus from A Little Night Music and Cinderella’s Prince from Into the Woods) and the bitter, acerbic artist Alex, are particularly notable.

The solid white painting of the tall, spare, rather elegant, main set units, designed by Matt Karner, reflects Seurat’s love of white (“a blank canvass, so many possibilities”). Some of the action, especially a delightful sequence in which Seurat channels the feelings of two dogs, is staged on a low step platform downstage, making visibility problematic for audience members beyond the first few rows.

From the original Broadway version forward, productions of Sunday have depended more than most shows on flying in set pieces, including a large scrim representing the Act 1 painting. KAT’s space lacks fly capacity, and the designers and technical staff make creative use of rear-screen projections, including computer-generated trees and buildings that move in and out, in place of physical set pieces. For the most part, this expedient is successful, though it has two downsides. First, the glaring projector light shines balefully through the scrim into the audience’s eyes throughout the production. Second, the inevitable placement of the scrim upstage of the actors creates some distortions in the staging, as when Burke is forced to deliver “Color and Light” with his back to the audience.

Director Craig Pettinati’s staging follows the traditional approach to the show, with some modifications to fit the space. David Rohde’s ten-piece orchestra navigates the intricate, complex score with little difficulty. Orchestra/singer balance is well maintained by Kevin Garrett’s sound design. Ben Levine’s lighting design, particularly the dots of light on the scrim and angled set units on either side of the stage, is evocative of Seurat’s pointillist style, and this production’s “chromalume” – a light show gadget that is George’s artistic presentation in Act 2 and which is one element of Sunday that seems different in every production – is nicely realized, projecting multicolored dots (what else?) onto the walls and ceiling. The Act 1 costumes, most of which necessarily follow the dress of people represented in the painting, are well executed.

Sondheim is sometimes criticized for taking a too-conceptual, overly intellectual, insufficiently emotional approach to his characters (a canard that the script places in the mouth of a stick-in-the-mud artist, played by Jimmy Payne, who objects to Seurat’s style on similar grounds). There’s no way anyone could genuinely listen to “Move On,” “Finishing the Hat,” “Beautiful,” or “Children and Art” in this production and believe that Sondheim doesn’t express deep feeling and passion as well as anyone in Broadway history, including even his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.

Indeed, Sunday itself is as much about the need for, and difficulty of attaining, human connection as it is about the process of creating art. It is this seeking after human connection, both for its own sake and as a wellspring of creativity, that makes some emotional sense of the famously puzzling ending of Act 2 which, taken literally, seems an odd bit of time travel without a time machine. Like Act 1, Act 2 ends with “Sunday,” my candidate for Sondheim’s most gorgeous piece of ensemble writing, of which the KAT cast gives a strong performance.

It is gratifying to see a splendid production of one of Sondheim’s greatest shows by a first-tier community theater. Now who hereabouts has enough chutzpah to take on Pacific Overtures?

Photo Gallery

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Photos provided by Kensington Arts Theatre

The Cast

  • Georges/George: Ryan Burke
  • Dot/Marie: Farrell Parker
  • Old Lady/Blaire Daniels: Karen Fleming
  • Nurse/Mrs. Harriet Pawling: Andrea Spitz
  • Franz/Lee Randolph: Russell Silber
  • Jules/Bob Greenberg: Jimmy Payne
  • Yvonne/Naomi Eisen: Carmel Ferrer
  • Louise/Waitress: Talia Brenner
  • Boatman/Dennis: Casey Jones, Stephen Yednock (u/s perf. / 2/18)
  • Celeste #1/Elaine: Diana Rodriguez
  • Celeste #2/Photographer: Erika Abrams
  • Frieda/Betty: Lisa Gullickson
  • Louis/Billy Webster: Wade Corder
  • Soldier/Alex: Eric Jones
  • Mr./Charles Redmond: Patrick McMahan

The Orchestra

  • Conductor: David Rohde
  • Violin: Devon Nicoll Oviedo, Marcia McIntyre
  • Viola: Caroline Brethauer
  • Cello: Virginia Gardner
  • Reeds: Dana Gardner, Mila Weiss
  • French Horn: Deb Kline
  • Keyboards: David Rohde, Francine Krasowska
  • Percussion: Dan Walt

Production Staff

  • Producer: Malca Giblin
  • Director: Craig Pettinati
  • Music Director: David Rohde
  • Stage Manager: John Nunemaker
  • Assistant Directors: Lenora Spahn, John Nunemaker
  • Scenic Design/Painting Design: Matt Karner
  • Master Carpenters: Matte Karner, Joel Richon
  • Properties/Scenic Decoration: Brian Campbell
  • Lighting Design: Ben Levine
  • Light Board Operator: Lenora Spahn
  • Sound Design: Kevin Garrett
  • Chromolume Music Design: Francine Krasowska, Kevin Garrett
  • Sound Board Operators: Mike Ricci, Kevin Garrett
  • Special Effects/Multimedia: Jordan Rose, Doe B. Kim
  • Projection Operators: Naom Lautman, Doe B. Kim
  • Costume Design: Eleanor Dicks
  • Hair Design: Malca Giblin
  • Makeup Design: Eric Jones
  • Construction Crew/Lights Hang: Mike Ricci, Joel Rochon, Matt Karner, Noam Lautman, Nancy Davis, Ed Eggleston, Jim Kostiw, Brian Campbell, John Nunemaker, Joy Wyne
  • Set Painting Crew: Karen Fleming, Malca Giblin, Karen Richon, Joel Richon, Brian Campbell, Ryan Burke, Diana Rodrigez, Jackie Sternberg, Lisa Gullickson, Stephanie Clements
  • Stage Crew: Brian Campbell, Malca Giblin,
  • Jackie Sternberg, Sherry Singer
  • Program Cover/Photography: Ernie Achenbach
  • Program Design/House Manager: Doe B. Kim

Disclaimer: Kensington Arts Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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