Beautiful Color and Atonal Songs in “Sunday”

“I love your painting; I feel I’m fainting” Dot declares while posing for her lover, French painter Georges Seurat. She rolls her eyes and complains about the heat on the bank of the Seine.

Sunday in the Park with George, Stephan Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical, imagines colorful characters in Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.


Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte hangs at the Chicago Museum of Art

Ion theatre’s attractive production of Sunday on view at San Diego Museum of Art’s Copley Auditorium through July 16 has an ideal cast.

The leads are Melissa Fernandes as Dot the mistress, and Jon Lorenz as Georges, the obsessed artist.

Eye-popping projections and scrims set the play in a park near the water.  Through theatrical magic, the painting comes to life. Actors stroll onto the stage dressed in costumes that mirror the painting.  We recognize their poses and parasols, their poofy dresses and large hats.

Melissa Fernandes as Dot the mistress, and Jon Lorenz as Georges, the obsessed artist. Photo: Iontheatre

Melissa Fernandes as Dot the mistress, and Jon Lorenz as Georges, the obsessed artist. Photo: ion theatre

Georges is serious about his art and ignores Dot.  She ends up marrying the baker, but has Georges’ baby. Georges’ mother worries about change and the new Eiffel Tower ruining her view. Women with fishing poles flirt with soldiers.  One of the soldiers is a moving projection

In real life, Seurat and his model Madeleine lived together in his studio when she became pregnant. He continued to paint in a post-impressionist style known as pointillism until his death at age 31.

Sondheim ‘s music is equally impressionistic, and atonal.  His musical influences are Ravel, Gershwin, and Stravinsky, and Sunday in the Park “is a Britten” score.  There are 19 songs, and while many are quite humorous, they sound odd. It’s important to savor the musical as a whole.  There is no other musical like this one.

One of the most upbeat sections has Georges singing about the dog in his painting, singing in a low and falsetto voice. Voices are crisp throughout the play, even tongue twister songs packed with words, and sound quality is excellent. There is noise from the restaurant next door, but that’s only a slight annoyance.

When first presented, the music was arranged for an 11-piece chamber orchestra.  For ion’s production, two grand pianos provide outstanding arrangements. If you go, be sure to sit on the right side to get a good view of two pianists (Mark Danisovszky and the amazing Daniel James Greenbush). Also beware there is no rake in the auditorium.  Arrive early.

Seurat devised the painting technique known as chromoluminarism and pointillism.  It took him two years to complete his work of tiny strokes of paint. The viewer’s eye blends colors.  He sketched all kinds of people at the park for the large painting.

“Order, design, tension, composition, balance, light…” “Sunday by the blue purple yellow red water, on the green purple yellow red grass…” “People strolling through the trees, of a small suburban park on an island in the river on an ordinary Sunday…Sunday…”

He was an odd character and the play about him is peculiar. It begins in the 1880s and leaps ahead 100 years in the second act, where all the characters take on second roles. They change costumes and turn into artsy folks at a museum.  They sip champagne and gather to watch a laser light machine created by the now modern George, who is a ringer for the actor Alec Baldwin.

“Art isn’t easy,” they sing, and it’s a game to connect characters from the past with those of the present. Georges becomes George, and Dot’s daughter Marie is now his grandmother in a wheelchair.  Remember it’s impressionistic. The second act begins to feel long, but resolution comes when old film of Paris flashes on the back wall. The modern George returns to the park and mutters about flecks of light and dark on parasols, which connects to the Georges of the 1880s, the artist obsessed with the science of color and light.

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