The Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of Sunday in the Park with George is being staged live and outdoors. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
I freely admit that I was elated when I found out that the University Theatre would be presenting Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” performed here by the original Broadway cast. The show at Western had originally been cancelled because of the pandemic last spring.
However, when I learned of the challenges that the company and director Jay Berkow were up against in staging the play safely, my initial elation gave way to several questions as I prepared to see the show last Sunday.
What would the recreation of George Seurat’s painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” look like in the bright September sunlight, rather than under stage lighting in a darkened auditorium? And what would Sondheim’s sumptuous score sound like amid the brick and mortar of the surrounding Miller Fountain Plaza?
And my most important question concerned the quality of the vocals. How would a cast wearing special see-through COVID masks sound when they spoke or sang?
I am pleased to report that all of my fears were allayed, and my questions answered by the resounding success I witnessed last Sunday afternoon.
After about five minutes I forgot about the masks, the less-than-ideal conditions, and I just listened to the music. I was able to do this because of the flawless delivery of Sondheim’s thoughtful and nuanced lyrics by the performers. Each member of the University Theatre’s talented ensemble also quickly established a fully dimensional character with just a few lines of dialogue, a gesture, or an entrance or an exit.
The two lead roles are double cast. Marcus Jackson as George in last Sunday’s performance, endows his role with a passion driven by his creative muse. George’s absorption in his work leads to a disconnect with those around him, including love interest Dot, played on Sunday by Allison Taylor.
In duets like “Color and Light” and “We Do Not Belong Together,” Jackson and Taylor show the fire and frustration of a couple whose relationship is on a downward spiral.
Taylor shines as Dot, showing the blush of her new-found love in the upbeat “Everybody Loves Louis.” At the same time, Jackson’s George turns inward. He remains in his loft, lost in the staccato rhythms of creating his own dots, those of pointillism, as he renders one of the show’s stronger numbers, “Finishing the Hat”.
Several supporting performances stood out as figures from George’s work on canvass come to life, including Adam Nyoff as the knuckle-dragging Boatman. Nyoff rises from a recumbent pose to present his rough-hewn, working-class opinions on the well-dressed strollers in the park and the leisure they represent.
Act Two fast forwards from 1884 to the modern era, where George’s great grandson, also named George, and also played by Jackson, is introducing a tech-heavy installation that takes Seurat’s studies of color and light into the twentieth century.
Jackson and his character’s modern muse, the presence of Dot from a bygone era, manage to make this startling leap across time fully believable. But the questions from 1884 remain. How does the artist connect with the seemingly distant world he paints so vividly? And what can the artist leave behind that will transcend this world? You can carefully consider the answers to these questions and more through October 4th as this memorable production continues.