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Connecting the dots

Pointillism and performance intersect in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

Sam Briggs steps into the role of legendary Georges Seurat in American Theatre Company’s production of “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Andrew Nichols

The musical gesture opening Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” is a prismatic arpeggio that ripples like the upswing of a paintbrush, culminating in a single bright note that leads into the musical’s first words, spoken by the 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat:

“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design, composition, tension, balance, light, and”—as the chord resolves—“harmony.”

The real Seurat’s famous style, called pointillism, depends on the mystery of connection that happens somewhere between dots of color on a canvas and the human eye. Sondheim, a legendary figure in musical theater, takes that mystery of connection as deep as it goes.

“It’s layer upon layer upon layer,” said director Meghan Hurley, who noted that the 1984 musical’s intimidating reputation might be one reason it has never been produced in Tulsa until now. American Theater Company, for which Hurley serves as executive director, takes on the task with a cast of 17, a live orchestra, custom-made costumes, sets, and lighting design, and a massive scrim that will feature shifting projections throughout the show.

Sondheim’s acidly funny, heady, heartwrenching musical (recently revived on Broadway with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role) is a work of art about “the art of making art,” in the words of its best-known song, “Putting It Together.” In the first act, the audience looks through the eyes of Seurat at the figures in his gigantic painting-in-progress, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” famously featured in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Simultaneously, the figures find their own voices and look, mostly with disdain, back at him.

In Act Two, another George, Seurat’s great-grandson, battles cynicism and cocktail trays as he shows his experimental art among a 1980s New York elite that’s already jaded by his previous efforts.

Throughout the show, the artist’s relationship with his art pushes against his relationships with other people, particularly Dot, his lover and model (whose name itself plays on Seurat’s pointillist technique). A repeated refrain of frustration—“connect, George, connect!”—puts us inside the difficult mind of a man who can easily connect to color and light but not always to feeling and loving.

“This show is not easy. Dramatically and musically it’s huge,” said Sam Briggs, who tackles the daunting role of the two Georges, originally played by Mandy Patinkin, a part he said has been on the top of his dream list for a long time. “I think what I'm taking away most from George right now is the sheer force of concentration and focus it takes to create as an artist. You have to commit to the process. You have to show up. And, I think he's constantly reminding me that it's alright to ‘go there,’ ‘create there.’ Don't be afraid.”

Just as in the canvas that inspired the musical, there’s a lot going on onstage. Even the dogs in the painting have a voice: Georges imagines them discussing their everyday lives in one of the show’s funniest songs, “A Day Off.” (“With splinters in your ass, you look forward to the grass on Sunday,” sings one whose master is the mean captain of a garbage boat.)

“It’s a directorial challenge,” Hurley said. “We’re in this park and there are 20 different things going on. Where is the focus? At the same time, there are simple words sung that will cut you to the core.”

It’s truly an ensemble production all the way through the creative team, Hurley said. “For instance, Ed Durnal, the lighting designer, says his instructor at NYU Tisch taught him to ‘paint with light.’ He’s doing that, while the music is painting this masterpiece, these simple chords that repeat themselves, so that by the end of each act’s finale, they’re combined together to create this huge effect.”

For artists and audience both, “Sunday in the Park with George” is a master class in musical theater, a gorgeously crafted journey that’s not afraid to go all the way to the edges of the emotional landscape.

“Theater is a way to connect with ourselves again,” Hurley explained. “This show is written so that the songs come directly out of the conversations, the arguments. That’s Sondheim in a nutshell. I told the actors, it’s OK if your voice cracks! I care about your connection to the emotion of the songs. Showing emotion is so much a part of what makes us human.

“Theater is not just ‘sit back, relax, enjoy the show,’” she said. “It can also be: sit up and take notice. I think this show is a good blend of both.” 

“Sunday in the Park with George”
Feb. 15–24, Liddy Doenges Theater / PAC
110 E. 2nd St.

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