‘Pretty isn’t beautiful’ — but Revival’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ is

Revival Theatre Company Presents:
Sunday in the Park with George

Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College — Through Nov. 17

Angela Billman and Rob Merritt in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ — TINT/Revival Theatre Company

Stephen Sondheim is not for the faint of heart. He lives under the umbrella of the musical genre, yet in a category of his own. Most people familiar with his work know to expect something entirely different; something unique, something (more than likely) discordant and challenging. There are fewer songs that are catchy. You probably won’t be humming the melodies as you walk to your car; the melodies might be indistinguishable or hidden to those of us who are more adept at absorbing the music, rather than conducting, playing or singing it.

Whether you are a Sondheim fan or not (and most I’ve talked to usually swing all the way to one end of the spectrum or the other — there are few middle-of-the-road folk), I think it is obvious there is a genius within the chaos that had never been seen before and that we all recognize may never be seen again. Sondheim is different, unmatched in a sub-category of his own creation, showing us a completely distinctive audible perspective in his stories on the stage.

Sunday in the Park with George (music and lyrics by Sondheim; book by James Lapine) is divided into two parts: The first focuses on the sacrifices George Seurat edured and inflicted in dedication to his art, the second half centers around his great-grandson’s artistic endeavors and his discovery of worth past the mental blocks and pressures of our more contemporary and judgy society. Though the show seems to center around these men (both played by Rob Merritt), it is Dot in the first half and Marie in the second (both played by Angela Billman) who is the savior and muse.

The costumes for Revival Theatre Company’s production, designed by Kathryn Huang, are the first things you notice — they are stunning to behold. It is clear she put a lot of love and patience into maintaining and even building some of the beautiful garments on stage. I also really enjoyed the minimalism of Rob Sunderman’s set: We get to see the blank canvas filled with the colors of character, story and projections by Kristen Geisler.

The projections are a nice way to avoid the bulk of, for example, the flown-in and flown-out trees you may remember from larger Broadway productions, as George imagines and reimagines the setting for his most famous piece (and the central piece of the show in general), Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. However, it was difficult to notice all of the projected changes/shifts as they were happening at times. The lighting by Scott Olinger served the show well, including an exciting display in the second half.

Angela Billman as Dot in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ — TINT/Revival Theatre Company

The first half of the show holds the more iconic songs and moments — though despite this, and despite some wonderful supporting performances, the first act suffers from low energy and pacing issues (especially within some slow transitions and slightly clunky staging). The show really picks up in Dot’s scenes, and the chemistry between Merritt and Billman is undoubtedly lovely to watch. Additionally, I greatly enjoyed a simple exchange between George and his mother (sweetly played by Nadine Borngraeber) at the end of the act. It’s stillness and nuance were captivating.

The second half moves much faster — perhaps our quick-paced society feels that way generally in comparison to the lazy, Parisian lifestyle we see in the preceding story. The tale also has more urgency to it: While the first act’s George Seurat is reconciled to his dedication to creating a focused, new art form (pointillism), his great-grandson is plagued by the idea that he must create something new to maintain worth. We see more of a journey for the contemporary George, where we previously see very little change for the famous, aloof George of the past. One of my favorite moments is when Dot returns to guide her kin to the understanding that art’s merit isn’t in its newness, it’s in the generosity and the vulnerability of expressing one’s truth.

The supporting cast does admirably. Anne Ohrt plays some intentionally irritating characters with panache and joy, and Susan Scharnau plays the devoted servants so generously it is impossible to dislike her. Sage Spiker does well playing an over-the-top soldier in part one and an earnest casualty of art in part two.

The Celestes (Stephanie Goff and Mary Jane Claassen) are full of energy and fun in the first half and quietly, appropriately, serve the show well in their more quiet roles in the second half. I would especially would like to commend Goff and Rosemary Gast for holding their parasols up and out, with perfect tension and stillness (as their depicted images suggest in Seurat’s piece), for the entirety of the first song of the second half. My arm became sore just watching them!

Merritt is clear in his choices and does an exceptional job distinguishing between each George for the audience’s consumption. Also, though I couldn’t detect a weak link in any of the performers, it’s worth noting that Merritt’s vocals are nothing short of superb. His duets with Billman are, at times, breathtaking.

Billman offers an incredible, stand-out performance in this show. From the youthful Dot to the elderly Marie, she is consistent, high energy, generously dedicated to each moment and wholly honest. Her spoken and sung delivery is on point, and her physical work outstanding. She will make you smile and give you hope; she is worth the ticket price alone.

Rob Merritt as George in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ — TINT/Revival Theatre Company

I am going to get controversial in my final thoughts: The music is astonishing in an impressive and almost uncomfortable way, and these local performers show incredible clarity and talent as they attack the material live. However, I am still uncertain as to whether I am a fan of the show itself. The message feels unclear — and, I think, this flaw likely lives on the page and not in the director’s vision.

Many of the choral characters in the first half feel nearly unnecessary to further the already muddied point. The best I can take from these outside forces is that artists are continually tasked with creating perfection amid continual noise. Art’s creation is fickle, consuming and incredibly difficult to urge into existence. Seurat sacrificed his muse, his lover and his lineage to painstakingly create something he is now applauded, thanked and remembered for (though he was never alive to see it). He selfishly broke the heart of his greatest love for it.

His focus on making something “new” cost him everything and is a force that could take his great-grandson as well. The two Georges are misunderstood and flawed, and I can’t help but wonder: Is Sondheim attempting to explain himself up there, in this tale of art’s ability to destroy as well as it’s limitless potential?

People usually love him or hate him. They chastise his works, or they worship them — but do any of us truly understand them? The show itself brings up the idea that “pretty isn’t beautiful” — the two feed different parts of our brain, one superficial, the other the deep tissues. Perhaps loving or hating Sondheim isn’t the point. Accepting, appreciating, respecting the beauty and trying to understand, not the spectrum, but the journey itself — perhaps that is more akin to a point one might walk away with.

I am left with the fact that art has a nearly untouchable power for many of us, a power that is confusing and enveloping and profound. But also, it’s most divine form lies in the imperfections and truths we allow ourselves to communicate to each other, no matter the medium. “Pretty isn’t beautiful,” and the generosity of personal truth is the support for every incredible artistic feat achieved.

This show and these ideas are incredibly difficult to translate to the stage, but the vision, cast and crew at Revival adhere to these notions well, and what is left is undeniably an adherence to the mission the show’s depicted art demands.

You can grapple with these issues yourself through Revival Theatre Company’s production, running through Saturday, Nov. 17, with shows at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets are $20-40.

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