“White. A blank page or a canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole.” As Georges Seurat (Mark J. Mauriello ’15) voices his thoughts in Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George, the set itself comes to life as his work of art through the use of large panels that act as projector screens. Animations are projected onto these panels—which form the backdrop of the set—and show the development of Seurat’s masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette” from a penciled sketch to the brilliantly colored final product. Directed by Ryan P. Halprin ’12 and running from March 30 to April 7 at the Loeb Mainstage, Stephen Sondheim’s charming musical dazzles with a stunning cast and sharp execution of the score. Though at times the visuals projected on the panels distracts from the acting, the musical still serves as a stunning combination of theatrical and visual art that serves as an invitation to examine the lives of the people in the painting more closely.
The play is based on Seurat’s most famous image of Parisians promenading in the Park. The painting’s significance lies in his daring break away from the more fluid stroke work of the Impressionists. He developed a novel technique known as Pointillism, in which the painting is made up of thousands of tiny painted dots. In “Sunday in the Park with George” Act I focused on Georges Seurat and the background behind the painting’s development, while Act II is set in the present day and follows George (also played by Mauriello), a descendent of Seurat’s, who is a young artist trying to reconnect with his own artwork and find new inspiration.
Mauriello is endearing as he skillfully portrays the intense obsession of an artist who is both immensely talented and socially isolated. With furrowed brows and his omnipresent sketchbook, George’s mad obsession with perfection is palpably felt in the musical number “The Day Off,” in which he voices his thoughts about painting a dog. He tries so hard to connect with his model that he rolls on the ground, yapping like a puppy. The orchestra provided fitting accompaniment to the action on stage. For example, it played crisp musical staccato beats in scenes of Seurat painting his dots, underscoring a tense desire for precision in his work.
Mauriello’s role as an isolated, obsessive artist is beautifully complemented by Dot (Kyla N. Haggerty ’13), his muse and long-time girlfriend. Haggerty lights up the stage as she melds frustration with tender admissions of love. For example, in the opening number, “Sunday in the Park with George”, she deconstructs the idyllic image of a Sunday in a Parisian park with a barely perceptible sense of grief. She complains about how “a trickle of sweat” or a wet petticoat would make a promenade very uncomfortable. Her frustrations about spending her Sundays in the park with her boyfriend serve as metaphors for her frustrations about her love for George and his inattentiveness. She sustains her strong performance as the elderly Marie—Suerat’s illegitimate daughter—in Act II. Even when putting on a scratchy and raspy voice, she sings with a delicate vulnerability that allows her acting and singing skills to carry through.
One of the show’s most intriguing aspects is the set design. Relying heavily on technology, the show skillfully treats the backdrop as Georges’ canvas, and the changes of color and composition accentuate his thought process. However, the experimental visual elements are hit-and-miss. In Act II, the use of animation projected on the panels adds an ingenious life-like quality as the figures communicated with each other on the canvas. Visual effects also lend Act II more weight as it enhances George’s own artistic endeavors. At times, however, this reliance on animation becomes excessive and distracts from the quality of the acting. For example, when Mauriello and Haggerty beautifully sing a duet, “We Do Not Belong Together,” after their breakup, animations of their sketched figures dancing in the background serves more to distract than to complement their delicate, heart-wrenching performances.
Despite the occasional misuse of the projectors, “Sunday in the Park with George” still impresses with its strong execution and set design. It is a musical that underscores the use of art as a metaphor for life, and the pursuit of a sense of balance in life.
—Staff writer Claire P. Tan can be reached at email@example.com.