Spend ‘Sunday in the Park’ with Sondheim at Muhlenberg
Director James Peck was always a fan of Stephen Sondheim’s theatrical work, well before he had the chance to present “Sunday in the Park with George,” one of the playwright’s best-known works.
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs Oct. 27 through Nov. 5, Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, Allentown.
“[Sondheim’s] work has a musical complexity to it that’s rare in theater music,” explains Peck. “Light, rich sounds in a chromatic scale, and the rhythmic structures are complicated.”
“And on top of that, he goes after complex social aesthetics and topics, a practice that’s becoming more and more common. So, both the thematic complexity and the musical difficulty and the beauty becomes something of a marvelous challenge for us.”
“Sunday in the Park with George,” based on a famous painting by Georges Seurat, received the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. James Lapine wrote the book.
“Sunday in the Park with George” is noted for having marvelous music and a rather diverse pace. Each act takes place in a different time period, featuring two different “George”s, and though they are related, they handle situations in decidedly pronounced ways.
The first “George” is Georges Seurat (1859-1891), the French post-Impressionist painter who pioneered the painting techniques known as chromoluminarism and pointillism, using the science of color to evoke qualities of light and harmony.
The second “George” is Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, a 20th century artist who builds innovative sculptures, called Chromolumes, that project images and light.
In the first act, Seurat works feverishly to complete his now-famous “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.”
In the second act, taking place 100 years later in the 1980s, Seurat the great-grandson unveils his “Chromolume No. 7.”
Says Peck, “Act-One George is a great artist who is so obsessed that he treats his family and lover poorly, and it’s a lot about somebody who kind of does great work but leaves a trail of suffering in his wake.
“The second act is the flip side, where modern-day George, who lives 100 years later, is socially-skilled, has friends, etcetera, and he has a lot of success with his work, but feels spiritually empty and doesn’t have any connection to the work he creates.”
The musical score reflects Seurat’s pointillist style, with unusual harmonics and staccato instrumental and vocal rhythms. The orchestra often offers more of a counterpoint to the singers than harmonic support. It features 11 instruments, paralleling the 11 colors that Seurat used in “Sunday Afternoon.”
Ed Bara, a veteran of numerous Muhlenberg productions, is music director and orchestra conductor.
The score includes some of the most beloved songs among Sondheim aficionados, including “Move On,” “Finishing the Hat,” and “Children and Art.”
Much in the way that the acts split the play in half, “Sunday in the Park with George” features two different casts, each performing on different days.
“I made the decision for pragmatic reasons,” says Peck. “I wanted to create more opportunities for talented individuals to have the chance to participate, and both casts are solid. I don’t think anyone is weak in the bunch. Everyone has their role down pat.
“Everyone’s at rehearsal all the time. One cast will learn a few pages, and then the other cast will come in and practice that, and next they’ll have a chance to try the next few pages, and back and forth. That’s created a sense that the roles are created together by both actors involved.”
While it may concern some directors to recognize certain differences between actors and their interpretations of certain characters, Peck embraces this happily, enjoying that his actors have the freedom to try different angles for themselves.
“I’ve gotten to know each cast very well, and there are definitely affinities between the actors who share certain roles, but also there’s interesting nuances between them and what gets emphasized. They find it interesting and fun, but we’ve made a shape similar enough between the two casts.”
Visually, the first act of “Sunday in the Park with George” occupies a complicated space that’s partly George’s studio, partly the park itself, partly the two-dimensional world of the painting, and partly the mind of the artist, as he transforms what he sees into the familiar image of a masterpiece.
To create this multi-layered universe, Muhlenberg has turned to veteran scenic designer Curtis Dretsch, New York costume designer Matt Riley, and veteran lighting designer Susan Hamburger, who has designed the lights for numerous Muhlenberg dance concerts.
The second act presents its own challenges: how to represent George’s “Chromolume No. 7” in a way that does justice to the character’s artistic abilities and also serves the play. The attributes of Empie Theatre, with its huge white walls and cavernous auditorium space, will be utilized.
The concept of duality extends to the overall theming and ideas the play attempts to show audiences, with two clear messages being communicated throughout the work.
“There are two tracks that this piece is interested in. The one has to do with this question of ‘How do you get the balance between your life and your work, and the obligations you have with other people?’ You need to recognize that the life you’re living and the work you’re making are entwined and you need to work on both in tandem.
“The other is a question of the art market. Both acts are aware of artists working in a commercial marketplace and figuring out how to negotiate that so they have the resources to do the work without taking you over and starting to dictate what the work will be. Or letting those pressures of how do you insert yourself into a scene that’s about social status and adulation than it is about the task of finishing the work. I think the play is a similar reaction. The marketplace will continue as is. You control what you do when you go to work.”
In this way, Peck hopes that audiences take away Sondheim’s passion for the arts and an understanding of their importance in our society.
Tickets: Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre and Dance box office, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, 2400 Chew St., Allentown; muhlenberg.edu/theatre; 484-664-3333.