As a headline in the Guardian newspaper once noted, Stephen Sondheim might just be the Shakespeare of musical theater. But of his many works — ranging from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Into the Woods” — only one show earned him (along with collaborator James Lapine) a Pulitzer Prize in drama: “Sunday in the Park with George.” Zach Theatre’s new production of the classic musical is a fitting, complex and deceptively straightforward rendition of the show that fully exploits the many notes and colors of this layered, engaging text.
An in-depth exploration of “the art of making art,” “Sunday in the Park with George” tells the fictionalized story of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat (called George in the show) and the creation of his most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” as well as the effect of that work on the life of his great-grandson, also named George. Both versions of George try to master their world, their relationships and themselves through their artistic work, making sacrifices and compromises along the way.
Through both its songs (by Sondheim) and dialogue (by Lapine), “Sunday in the Park with George” shows the ways in which the life of an artist freely intermingles with his work, and vice versa. With numerous overlapping themes and motifs, this is Sondheim at his best, exploring issues that are clearly personal to his own artistic experience and expression.
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Zach’s production, directed by the company’s producing artistic director, Dave Steakley, is fully aware of the strength of Sondheim’s work and takes great pains never to overshadow it. From the large-scale set pieces (designed by Cliff Simon), to the costumes and hair/makeup (by Susan Branch Towne and Serrett Jensen, respectively) that bring Seurat’s painting to life, and the sumptuous and moving orchestra under the direction of Allen Robertson, each element of the production works intricately with every other piece to create a greater whole, much like Seurat’s pointillist method itself.
The standout exception is the lighting design by Sarah EC Maines, assisted by Carlos Nine, which is a character in its own right, creating paintings on the stage while interacting and collaborating with the performers. Some of the most breathtaking moments in the play, in fact, feature an actor or actress summoning and controlling light and imagery through the power of their voice.
Though the entire company is quite strong, the two leads of this production are truly remarkable. Jill Blackwood’s performance as the first George’s muse/lover, Dot, shines with a strength that is equally passionate and compassionate, imbuing a figure from a painting with inner life and light. Even more stunning, though, is Cecil Washington Jr.’s transformative portrayal of both versions of George — the stolid, outwardly unemotional elder, who inwardly roils with artistic furor, and the far more temperamental younger man who is artistically adrift at sea. Both versions feel effortlessly genuine.
“Sunday in the Park with George” is one of the greatest works from one of the masters of musical theater, a serious and soulful meditation on the nature of art and life. Zach Theatre’s production is a gorgeous, colorful and uplifting performance that takes the play’s most crucial elements and beautifully puts them together.
‘Sunday in the Park With George’
When: Various times through June 24
Where: The Topfer at Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org