Hoopla

Revival Theatre connects the dots between art and artists in Sondheim musical

TINT

Dot (Angela Billman) tries to fit into the world of her lover, artist Georges Seurat (Rob Merritt), in “Sunday in the Park with George.” The Stephen Sondheim musical will be staged Nov.l 15 to 17 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
TINT Dot (Angela Billman) tries to fit into the world of her lover, artist Georges Seurat (Rob Merritt), in “Sunday in the Park with George.” The Stephen Sondheim musical will be staged Nov.l 15 to 17 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As light and shadow became characters themselves in Georges Seurat’s most famous painting, so did brilliance and darkness command his life.

Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine captured these stark contrasts in their 1985 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical masterpiece, “Sunday in the Park with George.” Revival Theatre Company is bringing it back to life Nov. 15 to 17 as a fully-staged production in Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium.

Sondheim’s work reflects many aspects of Seurat’s 1884 “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” in which the French painter merged his fascination with art and science to break his giant painting into tiny pinpoints of color.

Visible on close-up views, they merge into a cohesive portrait of a leisurely sunny day on a Parisian island in the Seine River, where families and couples stroll and picnic, dogs romp freely in the foreground, a monkey stays tethered beside its mistress, and a boatman and soldiers walk near the shoreline. And no one is making eye contact with anyone else, noted Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids, the production’s musical director.

Also referred to as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and measuring 6 feet 10 inches by 10 feet 1 inch, the oil painting housed at the Art Institute of Chicago paints a complex picture of everyday life — as does the musical it inspired.

Set in 1884, Act I focuses on Seurat and how his devotion to his art pushes his mistress, Dot, into the arms of another man. (The script drops the “s” and calls the main character “George.”)

Complicating his life is the fact that critics “initially hated it,” said Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “Seurat’s distinctive style was a turnoff for most at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. Other observers disapproved of the rigid profiles of the people, which Seurat meant to recall the Parthenon frieze and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Critics compared them to tin soldiers.”

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Act II jumps ahead to 1984, where Seurat’s great-grandson, also named George, is struggling with his art. Unlike his ancestor, this George masters the art of self-promotion and glad-handing to raise funds. The trade-off is that he is less connected to his art, fretting that he is not being true to himself and wondering if his art has meaning.

“You can do Act I without Act II, but then the story becomes very trite,” said Rob Merritt, 42, of Cedar Rapids, who plays both George characters. “You need Act II to understand why the story in Act I was important, and vice versa. Without spoiling it, there’s a moment at the end of the show that is beautiful beyond words, because of how it brings everything together.”

The musical is an imagining of Seurat’s story.

“In terms of the play, the only thing that’s factual is that there was a man named Georges Seurat and he had a painting,” said director Brian Glick of Cedar Rapids. “He did have a mistress, but we don’t know who she was. Everything else was developed by James Lapine and Sondheim.

“(Seurat) had a very short life. He died at age 31. He was very quiet, very mysterious. He never really sold any of his works, so there’s not a lot of information about him.”

Sondheim’s voice “speaks loudly” through the music, Sullenberger added. It’s difficult and layered, and reflects contemporary styles, rather than any late 19th century styles. It also reflects Seurat’s Pointillism technique, with lots of “dots” of sound and staccatos.

“There’s a motive that goes throughout,” Sullenberger said. “It’s almost like Sondheim is drawing on other composers like Stravinsky. You can just see where he’s going to push the envelope as classical but not classical. And right when you think he’s going to go there, then he just becomes Stephen Sondheim style of musical theater.”

His choices reflect the characters in the painting, Sullenberger said, with “harsh, rhythmic” music for the boatman; waxing romantic for George and Dot, giving them “beautiful duets;” as well as “a beautiful, poignant” number for the old woman/mother character.

“He has a lot going on. It’s pretty challenging,” Sullenberger said. “What makes it challenging is that (the actors) have to think about coming in at some irregular times, while being a consummate actor. ... The brain’s being challenged, the body’s being challenged. It’s almost magical madness at its best.”

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“I can honestly say that this is probably one of the hardest roles I’ve ever attempted, in terms of both musically and who George is,” Merritt said. “But at the same time, there are many things about this show that speak to me very personally.

“As a writer, I empathize a great deal with how George feels about his art and his work, and trying to create something that will matter to people. So I as an actor have tried to latch onto that,” he said.

Merritt said that he grew up with the show. His mother saw it on Broadway, and he watched the PBS “Great Performances” video multiple times. However, the show was new to Angela Billman, 32, of Cedar Rapids, who plays Dot in Act I and 1984 George’s grandmother, Marie, in Act II.

“I come at this from the angle of the average theatergoer,” she said. “I hadn’t heard of it until I auditioned for the show.

“It’s such an interesting piece. It is truly a magnificent challenge. I have never worked on such difficult music in my life,” said Billman, who slid into the role on the heels of playing Eliza Doolittle in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of “My Fair Lady.”

“The music punctuates the acting, so until you have the one, you can’t have the other,” she said. “The puzzle that it is, is a very intricate one to put together. ... I just really have a great appreciation for the art that it is.”

And when the two Georges’ worlds collide, “You could argue that the whole piece reflects how a painter paints,” Sullenberger said. “There’s times when the themes are smudged a little bit, where the music is blended like a painter would blend. There’s times where it’s rough and not very attractive. We’ve all seen paintings like that. There’s lots of color in the way that he writes. ...

“It’s a gorgeous art history lesson.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

WHAT: Revival Theatre Company: “Sunday in the Park with George”

WHERE: Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 to 17

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TICKETS: $40 general admission; $20 students through Paramount Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, (319) 366-8203 or Artsiowa.com

DETAILS: Revivaltheatrecompany.com/Sunday-in-the-Park-with-George/

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