Sunday in the Park with George at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Julie Martell in the park

Anthony Malarky and Julie Martell as Louis the baker and Dot

On our way home from Niagara-on-the-Lake, we tried to think how they could have made Sunday in the Park with George more . . . well, more interesting. Better leads? Not the problem. Steven Sutcliffe and Julie Martell (as George and Dot) both sang well, acted well, looked well. We really didn’t think the show was badly paced.

It was hard to pinpoint any particular problem with the Shaw Festival’s show. But we both had trouble staying awake, and so did other people in the seats around us. Rochester friends who saw the show a week later reported the same.

There’s an expression “as exciting as watching paint dry.” That’s not literally what we were doing at the Royal George Theater, but it’s not much of a stretch between that and Seurat - Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jattewatching someone sketching a model and then watching him work on a painting, one tiny stroke at a time, in his studio.

Of course, this Stephen Sondheim musical does tell a story. And it revolves around one of the world’s most celebrated paintings, Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (at the Art Institute of Chicago).

Seurat_bathers[1]

Seurat's large painting Bathers at Asnières is at the National Gallery in London

The first half of this musical play is a fictional vignette in the life of young Georges Seurat, whose first major work, Bathers at Asnières, was mocked by the critics.  George is now applying his innovative, dot-by-dot style to another, even more ambitious painting (ten feet wide) of Parisians enjoying the sun and the sights in La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine.

Sunday in the Park

George's models for Bathers at Asnières

We meet George on the island working on a sketch for his new painting. His model (and mistress, who is in love with him) Dot is having trouble keeping still for him; she sings a song about how hot and uncomfortable she is. Colorful characters, including a mentally confused old lady (Sharry Flett) who turns out to be George’s mother, wander past George and Dot. They all end up in the painting. Dot is the young woman on the right with a parasol.

Seurat - Port-en-Bessin Entrance to the Harbor (1888 MOMA)

Several years after the scenes in the play, in 1888, Seurat painted Port-en-Bessin, Entrance to the Harbor, also in his pontillistic style. This smaller painting is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Back in George’s studio, Dot sings about how frustrating it is to have a lover who spends all his nights painting instead of paying attention to her and taking her to the Follies.  Out on the town by herself, Dot meets and is courted by Louis the baker, who is planning to emigrate to America.  Should she marry the steady Louis, who will take care of her even though she is carrying George’s baby, or stick it out with George? Meanwhile, George’s paintings continue to be unappreciated by the Parisian art world. We learn most of this through the show’s songs; there’s relatively little dialogue.

All this takes place in 1884. The second act, somewhat more lively than the first, takes place a hundred years later in 1984 (which, not coincidentally, is when the show was premiered on Broadway). The “George” in the second act (also played by Steven Sutcliffe) is the fictional great-grandson of Georges Seurat, who died in 1891 at the age of 31.

Sunday in the Park3

George works the crowd

Twentieth-century George is an artist too; he creates Chromolumes, which are a kind of electrified sculpture and invention. Like his famous ancestor, he struggles with gaining recognition and funding for his work. At an art museum gala, George unveils and demonstrates his latest Chromolume, which is supposed to relate to Seurat’s masterpiece; with him is George’s very elderly grandmother, who is Dot’s daughter (born in America), and who tells the gathering about the people in Seurat’s painting.  At a reception afterward, George works the crowd, flattering potential patrons for his art. 

Of course Sunday in the Park With George won a Pulitzer in 1984, and who are we to argue? And personally, we enjoyed Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated score, which riffs off Seurat’s pontillistic style of painting with short jagged motifs and dissonant chords. This music is challenging, but we disagree with those who say the tunes in this show aren’t memorable.

But it must be said that Sunday in the Park With George, taken as a whole, just isn’t compelling drama. The characters aren’t terribly interesting or sympathetic, and if the show’s creators meant to say something profound about Art and the plight of misunderstood artists, we failed to see that it was especially profound. For us the play had a kind of static quality. Much of the time nothing much seemed to be happening; halfway through the first act we felt as if we were waiting for Godot. The energy level rose during the whirlwind of the art museum reception in the second act; only then, and only briefly, did we feel drawn into the lives of the characters.

As for this particular production of Sunday in the Park With George at the Shaw Festival, which is well done, we have no complaints.

Georges_Seurat_-_Les_Poseuses[1]

One of the very few other large-scale paintings by Seurat, titled The Bathers, is at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. A good portion of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is reproduced by Seurat in the background of the Barnes picture.

And we were tickled to see some of our favorite works of art on stage. As nearly as we can determine, the character of Dot, Georges Seurat’s mistress, is not a historical personage, so we didn’t learn much more about Seurat or his famous painting than we already knew. But we do like Seurat, and we enjoyed the fantasy of being present at the creation of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. And we were amused by the end of the first act, when all the characters arranged themselves on stage in a tableux that recreates the painting.

Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières is also seen on stage early in the first act. And in this show one of Claude Monet’s best-known paintings, Garden at Sainte-Adresse, also makes a cameo appearance in the arms of of a rich American who is carrying it onto a ship that Monet - Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867)will take him (as well as Dot and Louis the Baker) to America. The scene (improvised by the director and not in the script) represents, we suppose, the cultural drain of art masterpieces from Europe to America. As a matter of history, the use of Monet’s painting is a bit of a stretch. According to information on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Garden at Sainte-Adresse was purchased from Monet by one Victor Frat, apparently a Frenchman, before 1870. The painting did not come to America until 1926; the Met bought it at a Christie’s auction in 1967.

Emsworth reviews of other 2009 shows at the Shaw Festival :

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. …greatt…

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Doesn’t it puzzle you as to how Sunday in the Park with George was apparently so popular? Or why it won awards? Was it a case of people praising it simply because they thought they should? — Emsworth

  3. I agree with your opinions totally ( we were present at the matinee Thursday Oct. 24 ) But I would go further and say that Sondheim is at fault. He spread himself too thinly and not very interestingly over Seurat’s painting “Sunday Afternoon” whilst he, himself seemed more interested in the struggle to express an artist’s loneliness and the challenge of artistic inspiration.The confronting of the stark blank page; the elements of a successful creation that the artist strives to address in his/her self-expression were probably paramount in Sondheim’s mind. The artist could really have been Michelangelo, Goya , Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse etc. etc. To sum up, neither of these two themes were served well. I am 75 – am an artist , have taught high-school art for 25 years , have two degrees in Art ( McGill and University of Michigan) and am quite familiar with Sondheim’s work as I am a double cousin of Len Cariou.

  4. hi i am doing a homework on seurat and think that this web site is quite helpful!


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