10/9/2021 SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE Jennie T. Anderson Theatre Concert Series
THE ART OF MAKING ART
(Bias Alert: Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve become “Zoom Friends” with director Heidi Cline McKerley and actor Jeff McKerley. Even before that, I tended to view their work through approval-tinted glasses. Keep your grains of salt close at hand.)
A blank page or canvas.
So many possibilities.
A blank stage that needs to come alive in seven short days.
So many opportunities for failure.
And yet, the JT Anderson concert of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George succeeds on every level imaginable, making me ponder what could have resulted from a more traditional staging and rehearsal schedule.
Let me fill in some of the white spaces for you.
From 1884-1886, Parisian artist Georges Seurat labored at his large masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It was groundbreaking in many ways, most notably in its use of “pointillism,” a technique in which the artist uses pixels (dots) of only a few pigments in proximity, allowing the viewer’s mind and eye combine them in a plethora of tones and colors. In fact, analysis reveals that Seurat used only ten colors in his masterwork. He coined the term “Chromoluminarism” to describe the effect. Seurat’s genius was prematurely cut off when he died in 1891 at the age of thirty-one.
After the 1981 failure of Merrily We Roll Along, the rumor was that Sondheim was ready to give up musical theatre . After spending several days at the Art Institute of Chicago studying Seurat’s painting, Sondheim and Lapine dove into a new work fictionalizing Seurat’s life and imagining the worlds of the painting’s figures. Originally presented Off-Broadway in 1983 as a one-act, it added the 1980’s second act for its 1984 Broadway opening. The finished script contrasted two artists, one burgeoning into his century’s art world, the other burned out in a rut of self-parody in his own It was a “deep dive” into the worlds of art and commerce and inspiration, with an almost “pointillistic” score that reflected Seurat’s style even as it paid it due homage.
The musical went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1985,one of only ten musicals to do so.
Although, historically, we know that Seurat had a documented mistress and two children who did not survive infancy, Lapine and Sondheim imagine another mistress, called “Dot” here (of course), who cannot compete with George’s passion for his work. Bearing Seurat’s daughter, Dot marries a “safe” baker and movies to America where her husband can work for a wealthy Southern couple. Her great-grandson is of course the 1985 George whose groundbreaking “Chromolume” sculptures are becoming passe and even a little trite.
Sondheim’s score is a singular achievement, sharply contrasting staccato rhythms of George at work with soaring, even rapturous melodies of passion and success, both acts climaxing with “Sundays,” a harmonious anthem combining many voices in artistic balance. Both moments transcend the usual joys of musical appreciation, stirring something sublime, a recognition that true art, true music, appeals not to our joy, but to an indescribable core that drives and defines us. “Sundays” may just be my favorite musical number ever.
Director Heid Cline McKerley has collected a superb ensemble, led by Billy Tighe as George and Janine Ayn as Dot and Marie. Ms. Ayn in particular is a revelation, a singer of apparently bottomless strength and range and an actress who nimbly navigates the character’s progression from obsessive mistress to proud model (“You taught me to concentrate”) to despair as she opts for the safe Louis for the sake of her daughter. She then turns around to totally inhabit the 98-year-old Marie in Act II, a different character but one with the same spark and drive that characterized Dot. Filling out the cast were Atlanta stage mainstays Jeff McKerley and Natasha Drena (Jules and Yvonne), Jill Hames (Old Woman / Blair Daniels), Eden Mew (Louise), Benjamin H. Moore (Soldier . Alex), Adam Washington (Louis / Billy Webster), Chloe Cordle (Frieda / Betty), Robert Mitchel Owensby (Boatman / Charles Redmond), Lamont J. Hill (Franz / Dennis), Marcie Millard (Mrs. / Nurse / Harriet Pawling), Charlie T, Thomas (Mr. / Lee Randolph), Hannah Lake (Celeste 1), and Jaymyria Etienne (Celeste 2 / Elaine).
The technical stars of the concert were Musical Director S. Renee Clark and Projection Designers
Bradley Bergeron & Rick Frendt. The cast individually were able to convincingly “sell” Sondheim’s score, but they truly soared as an ensemble, giving the mega-harmonic “Sundays” the power and beauty it needs and deserves. The projections, very ably supported and enhanced by the lighting design of Michael Carver, successfully accomplished the double duty of setting the scenes (primarily George’s Paris atelier and the Park on the River) and reflecting the painting as it evolved from blank page to finished painting.
It is a credit to Ms. McKerley as a director that the burden of the short rehearsal period was evident in only small easily overlooked moments – a projector that switched to screen saver mode for the briefest of seconds and a second act that was a bit less off-book than the first. But the overall impact was a confirmation that this is an ideal work for the “Staged Concert” approach, that the cast was fully prepared and at the peak of their considerable talents, that the story, the characters, the music, all retain their power and their impact and their lasting memory.
Order. Balance. Composition. Design. Harmony. All elements that build on blank page or canvas or stage to navigate the inherent chaos of creation, the perfect navigation that is indeed the art of making art. Seurat was able to achieve it. Sondheim and Lapine were able to achieve it. And now, Heidi Cline McKerley with her cast and crew were able to achieve it.
Sunday in the Park With George was a profoundly moving experience, a breathtakingly rapturous submersion in the creative process, and a concert that only whet my appetite to see a full production. Hopefully with the same creative team.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SundayInTheParkWithGeorge #JennieTAndersonConcerts)