“Sunday in the Park with George” on display at Off Center Theatre
KANSAS CITY, Mo —
“The art of making art, is putting it together…bit by bit.”
Those lyrics by musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim are from his rarely produced 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show, “Sunday in the Park with George.” They could also serve as a summation of what the play is all about.
The current production by Musical Theater Heritage at the Off Center Theater in Crown Center is the first professionally mounted version of this show ever staged in KC. With its intellectually challenging themes and intricate music and lyrics, it’s easy to see why so few theatre companies are willing accept the challenge.
“Sunday in the Park with George,” with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by James Lapin, is ostensibly about French post-impressionist artist Georges Seurat and his efforts to complete his massive 1884 painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.”
It’s actually about the enormous difficulties that creative people (like Sondheim) face any time they attempt to create a work of art. Can ‘art’ be executed in a vacuum, or must every artist also be a salesman and promoter to ensure that their efforts are properly shared with -and appreciated by- the audience?
Kudos to director Sarah Crawford, her production colleagues and her talented cast for making this thorny material as accessible as possible. As with most MTH productions, this is a ‘concert-style’ presentation, where the cast members deliver their performances behind music stands. The exception is Tim Scott as Seurat, who is allowed to roam beyond the fourth wall.
The fictionalized story is divided into two parts. The first act is about Seurat, his model and mistress, Dot (Katie Karel), and how their relationship deteriorates while Seurat works on his magnum opus. The remaining fifteen members of the terrific ensemble play the peripheral characters who also populate the painting.
The second act takes place 100 years later. George (Scott, again) is Georges and Dot’s great-grandson, an artist using his ancestor’s fame to generate interest in his own questionable work. Karel portrays Marie, George’s grandmother and the illegitimate child of Georges and Dot.
The show’s music and lyrics reflect Sondheim’s attempt to aurally replicate Seurat’s style of ‘pointillism,’ where thousands of tiny dots of paint are flecked onto the canvas. The songs must be delivered in a precise staccato style that’s extremely difficult to sing and properly enunciate.
Scott and Karel are strong vocalists and each takes advantage of their moments to shine. On opening night, unfortunately, some of those moments were lost due to difficulties with the sound system. Plus, the orchestra sometimes overpowered the vocalists, making those tricky lyrics even more obscure. (The producers have since worked to resolve those issues.)
But even with perfect sound, the show keeps audiences at arm’s length. The intriguing first act focuses on the problems that plague an artist who is lacking in social skills. The second act seems tacked on, however, an intellectual exercise about salesmanship that fails to gain much emotional traction.
Even so, “Sunday in the Park with George” is an important show. Though it will probably be more admired than enjoyed, it should be seen by anyone with the desire to achieve theatrical literacy. Since it is so rarely produced, MTH’s admirable effort provides that chance.
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs through April 14th at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Mo. Information is available at www.musicaltheaterheritage.com or by calling 816-221-6987.