An impressive ‘Sunday within the Park With George’ at Pasadena Playhouse

Great artists don’t all the time obtain their due in America. That can’t be mentioned about Stephen Sondheim, whose work appears solely to develop in esteem and deepen in public affection with the passage of time.

It’s value underscoring that when Sondheim started writing his personal authentic reveals, he was accused of killing what audiences liked most about musical theater — its sentimentality. He was intelligent, ironic and unapologetically experimental. But many questioned whether or not he had a coronary heart.

In “Sunday in the Park With George,” one in every of Sondheim’s indeniable masterworks, he delves into the dilemma of a trailblazing artist who refuses to evolve to expectations in his work or in his relationships. The private prices are huge, however Georges Seurat, the French Neoimpressionist who’s the topic of the musical’s imaginative inquiry, leaves behind not solely a brand new approach of seeing, but in addition one other register for understanding emotion.

An impressive new manufacturing of “Sunday in the Park With George” opened on Sunday as a part of Pasadena Playhouse’s six-month-long Sondheim Celebration. It’s being touted as the primary main competition honoring the composer-lyricist’s work since his dying in 2021, however it feels a part of a theater-wide salute that reveals no indicators of abating.

The divine Broadway revival of “Into the Woods” that closed final month is headed to the Ahmanson Theatre in June. A brand new “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, opens in March on Broadway underneath the route of “Hamilton” Tony-winner Thomas Kail. And New York Theatre Workshop’s latest manufacturing of “Merrily We Roll Along,” starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, redeemed one in every of Sondheim’s uncommon flops and earned itself a major slot in Broadway’s subsequent fall season.

Closer to house, East West Players delivered, post-insurrection, a courageous manufacturing of “Assassins,” one other intriguingly recalcitrant Sondheim property. There have additionally been concert events, books (together with D.T. Max’s “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim”), recordings and various tributes, probably the most shifting of which was the out of doors gathering of Broadway luminaries in Manhattan’s Theater District after Sondheim’s dying for a efficiency of “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park With George” within the maestro’s honor.

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You’d suppose these of us who’re maintaining tabs is perhaps surfeited by now, however a real theater lover can by no means have an excessive amount of Sondheim. Pasadena Playhouse’s competition started in January with “Into the Woods.” A collaboration between the theater and highschool college students and academics of Pasadena Unified School District, this presentation positioned the Sondheim Celebration on a powerful communal footing.

Pasadena Playhouse has pulled out all of the stops for “Sunday In the Park With George,” the primary main-stage providing of the competition. Directed by Sarna Lapine, this luxurious manufacturing boasts a full orchestra underneath the music route of Broadway veteran Andy Einhorn and an intensive (and little doubt murderously costly) solid.

Lapine is the niece of James Lapine, who wrote the present’s Pulitzer Prize-winning e book and directed the unique 1983 off-Broadway manufacturing at Playwrights Horizons that moved to Broadway the next 12 months. She brings a observe document of success with “Sunday in the Park With George,” having directed the lauded 2017 Broadway revival with Jake Gyllenhaal within the title position.

Pasadena Playhouse’s manufacturing stars Graham Phillips as George, a bearded French painter singularly targeted on his work, and Krystina Alabado as Dot, his drained mannequin and annoyed paramour. These performers dominate the stage, each within the first act, which imagines the painstaking creation of Seurat’s breakthrough masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and within the second, which jumps ahead a century to think about a descendant of Seurat, an modern American artist, caught within the company vise of the up to date artwork market.

The solid re-creates the Seurat portray “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

(Jeff Lorch

Members of the design workforce (particularly, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, projection designer Tal Yarden and lighting designer Ken Billington) additionally deserve prime billing. This musical meditation on the mad, miraculous quest of a visionary artist is delivered to life with gorgeous visible ingenuity.

The manufacturing fantastically suggests the symmetry between Seurat’s story and Sondheim’s personal. Seurat’s in-process portray, a scene of Parisians lollygagging in a park on the banks of the Seine on an unusual Sunday, is projected onto a scrim behind which the orchestra could be seen enjoying.

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Seurat is understood for ushering in Pointillism, a department of Impressionism that integrated new scientific understanding of human notion. The approach includes coloured dots which are utilized in patterns, that are then are blended by the attention of the viewer right into a extra in depth vary of tones.

Figures in Seurat should not as clearly delineated as they’d be within the fingers of extra typical artists, like Jules (Michael Manuel), George’s pompous, power-brokering rival within the musical. Sondheim and James Lapine are equally not involved with conventional characterizations. They are working in varieties, vivid outlines which are flecked with music in such a approach that depths of feeling are created virtually out of skinny air.

Like Seurat’s unorthodox brushwork, Sondheim’s post-Rodgers-and-Hammerstein songwriting conjures a mirage impact all its personal. The orchestra and the singers talk a extra profound story of affection, loss and inventive achieve than is accounted for within the libretto alone.

What prevents Lapine’s good manufacturing from being nice? The reply lies within the subtlest of calibrations, however usually the route leans too closely on the e book. That will not be the place the genius of this musical resides.

The ensemble would have benefited from a contact extra resistance to the present’s comedian caricatures (the ugly Americans in Act I, the museum vultures in Act II). These personages are broadly sketched, however they needn’t be performed fairly so cartoonishly.

Artistic director Danny Feldman famous in his curtain speech how uncommon it’s to expertise a present of this scale in a home as comparatively intimate as Pasadena Playhouse. I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling lucky to have had this chance, however the high quality of the amplification hinders the alchemy of the songs.

Vocal textures are misplaced, and with them a not-insignificant a part of George and Dot’s romantic story. The music offers area for glimpsing in artwork what can’t be realized in life. (Art isn’t straightforward, as Sondheim’s lyric tells us, however it may well present us the best that messy, boisterous actuality denies.) The profound emotional bond between George and Dot, although stymied by an uncooperative plot, has the prospect to search out chromatic expression of their singing.

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Phillips and Alabado have some issue connecting on this transcendent stage. The downside is partly acoustical. (The choral numbers even have a clouded penumbra.) But George and Dot’s subliminal attachment is barely vaguely current right here.

Phillips, an actor and filmmaker who was an opera soloist in his youth, caught my consideration final 12 months within the position of Nick within the Geffen Playhouse revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In “Sunday in the Park With George,” he’s extra poignant when George is alone together with his canvas than when having to work together with Dot, his lover who fashions for him all day underneath a scorching son and expects some tenderness for her devoted labor.

Two’s a crowd for an artist with limitless ambition and restricted time. (Seurat died at 31.) Dot is each drawn to and wounded by George’s dependable dedication to his work. But Alabado can solely point out her character’s increased longings. The undersong of Dot’s unconscious will get misplaced in all of the quotidian bustle.

When Alabado seems in Act II as Marie, the illegitimate daughter of George and Dot, now the 98-year-old grandmother of a stylish American set up artist additionally named George, the calls for of enjoying a nonagenarian are extra hampering than the sound system. Marie’s quantity “Children and Art,” wherein she tries to go down what’s she’s gleaned from her lengthy life, leaves an impression of play-acting.

But Alabado and Phillips discover the hard-earned knowledge of George and Dot’s love story in a shifting rendition of “Move On.” The music showcases the enduring emotion of misplaced love in a corridor of mirrors that defies the legal guidelines of time and purpose.

Art permits such freedom. And nice artwork like “Sunday in the Park With George” is a blessing, even in a manufacturing that may solely brush up in opposition to its sublimity.

‘Sunday in the Park With George’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and eight p.m. Saturdays, 2 and seven p.m. Sundays. Ends March 19.
Tickets: Start at $39
Info: (626) 356-7529,
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, together with one 15-minute intermission