Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 Broadway musical, “Sunday In The Park With George,” is a thought-provoking examination of artistic creation. Burning Coal Theatre Company’s sensitive production is among the very best in its 18-season history.
Georges Seurat is forever remembered for his ground-breaking late-19th century painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Seurat makes the viewer’s eye blend thousands of dots into various colors and shapes.
Sondheim and scriptwriter James Lapine devote Act I to Seurat’s obsession with finishing the painting, ignoring his relationship with his model, Dot. Although pregnant with his child, she eventually leaves him.
Act II occurs a century later at the Art Institute of Chicago. Dot’s great-grandson, George, is honoring the painting with his own artwork, but he also longs to do something new. He travels to the painting’s island, where Dot’s spirit encourages him to trust his instincts.
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The Broadway production was elaborate, but the show is essentially intimate. Director Jerome Davis uses Burning Coal’s small space to advantage with clean, precise staging, allowing personal interactions to register subtly. Sondheim’s densely worded lyrics can be easily understood, helped by Christian Stahr’s delicate musical direction.
Tyler Graeper believably portrays Act I George’s near-rabid intensity and Act II George’s struggle between financial and artistic goals. The 21-year-old college student shows great promise for a theatrical career.
Dot is the show’s emotional center, and Natalie Reder’s characterization is the production’s motor. Her multi-layered acting and powerful vocals make Dot warmly amusing but also surprisingly wise. In Act II, as Dot’s aged daughter Marie, Reder touches the heart with Marie’s stories about Dot and Seurat.
The other 13 actors are equally well cast, but there’s room only to mention Lenore Field as Seurat’s needy mother, Alec Donaldson’s sophisticated art critic Jules, Diana Cameron McQueen as his snooty wife Yvonne, and Alex Reynolds’ gruff boatman.
There’s some rushed, awkward arranging of canvases on a large grid and much of the audience is not ideally positioned to fully see the living re-creation of the famous painting. But anyone interested in musical theater’s range and impact should see this fine production.
What: Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”
Where: Burning Coal Theatre Company, 224 Polk St., Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 16-18, 23-25, 30, and May 1-2; 2 p.m. Apr. 12, 19, 26 and May 3
Tickets: $15-$25 (student rush $5)
Info: 919-834-4001 or burningcoal.org