Arts & Culture

REVIEW: In 'Sunday in the Park with George,' all elements combine to create a musical masterpiece

Revival Theatre staging 'Sunday in the Park' through Saturday

Greg Billman photo

Once again, Dot (Angela Billman) is left alone, her dreams of a night out dashed as George (Rob Merritt) as George can’t tear himself away from his painting in “Sunday in the Park with George.” Revival Theatre Company’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical runs through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College, Cedar Rapids.
Greg Billman photo Once again, Dot (Angela Billman) is left alone, her dreams of a night out dashed as George (Rob Merritt) as George can’t tear himself away from his painting in “Sunday in the Park with George.” Revival Theatre Company’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical runs through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College, Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — “Order, design, attention, balance, harmony.” All the points at the heart of Georges Seurat’s artistry become luminous in Revival Theatre Company’s production of “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Every aspect of the production, which runs through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College, is a masterpiece in this sweeping character study of the 19th century French pointillist painter whose elegant, enormous “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” drew ridicule in the 1880s but fascinates viewers today at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 1984, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine is colorful, imaginative, illuminating and heartbreaking as it introduces us to Seurat in 1884 and his great-grandson George in 1984. Modern-day George isn’t convinced of his heritage, even though he and his great-grandfather are too alike to deny it.

Georges (the “s” is dropped in the script) creates paintings from tiny dots of disparate colors placed side by side, tricking the eye into mixing them in the mind.

Up close, the viewer sees tiny dots, even in the frame. Farther away, the “blue, purple, yellow, red water/green, purple, yellow, red grass” points merge into a languid scene playing out on a Parisian picnic island, where ladies in bustles carry parasols, men lie in repose and pets romp in the shade. Modern-day George creates “sculptures” out of points of light that shatter and whirl about in a mind-blowing special effect in Act II.

Their overarching difference is that elder George is obsessed with his art, doesn’t know how to sell it, shuts out the people who enter his world, and never sells a painting before dying at age 31.

Modern George is obsessed with making money, relying on a formula that has sold well, but is growing weary for buyers and artist.

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Rob Merritt plays both men in a tour de force performance that is his finest hour through the many faces he’s played on Eastern Iowa stages.

Bridging the generations is elder George’s lover, Dot, created so delicately by Angela Billman, whose powerhouse vocals send shivers through her every song — even when she plays modern George’s frail grandmother in Act II.

They are surrounded by a superb cast of actors who bring color, context, tension and glorious harmony to every scene. The grumpy boatman, the stiff soldier, the gossipy, flirty girls, the stuffy adults, the hired help, the spoiled child — all bring crucial elements to George’s life and painting.

A special nod goes to Nadine Borngraeber as George’s mother, whose memories are fading with age but burst forth in moments of luminosity. The mother-son duet in “Beautiful” is beautiful indeed.

The music and lyrics are among Sondheim’s greatest achievements, devoid of the crazy mishmash of overlapping lyrics that obliterate storylines in some of his works. Instead, he creates pointillist music where staccato dots of sound and rapid-fire rhythms challenge singers, orchestra and listeners in the best way. And Revival’s orchestra, under the baton of Michelle Perrin Blair, is superb, never overshadowing the voices.

Reflecting the lyrics from “Color and Light,” the entire team of directors, designers and assistants give the show “order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry, balance” every step of the way.

Rob Sunderman’s scenic design, featuring a graduated series of frames, ramps and steps, not only mirrors a painting’s frame, but provides a blank canvas for Scott Olinger’s lights and Kristen Geisler’s fascinating, ever-changing scenery, flinging dots onto the backdrop that becomes Seurat’s masterwork.

Kathryn Huang’s costumes are exquisite. The women’s bustle dresses and undergarments are works of art, whether standing alone or merging into the painting. And all the other attire paints vivid images of both centuries, with the help of her assistant, Melonie Stoll.

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With sweeping brush strokes and pinpoint precision, Artistic Director Brian Glick and Music Director Cameron Sullenberger have created a marvelous addition to the growing body of masterpieces in Revival Theatre’s gallery.

If You Go

• What: Revival Theatre Company presents “Sunday in the Park with George”

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

• When: 7:30 p.m. through Saturday

• 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/

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

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