When Love and Art Collide: A Review of Sunday in the Park with George

“Art ain’t easy—even if you’re smart,” laments the frustrated title character toward the end of the Waterworks Players’ terrific new production of Sunday in the Park with George, a story that explores the labors of love and art, creativity and connection.  It is inspired by Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a pioneering tableau that relies on daubs of color rather than strokes of a brush to create an illusion of cohesion and form.  Thanks to Dudley Sauve’s clever direction, this show reminds us that things of lasting value—masterpieces and relationships alike—would never come to pass without sustained effort and careful attention.

If art doesn’t come easy to George (portrayed by the winning Chris Swanson), neither does love.  The show begins warily and cautiously, much as Seurat began his painting in the 1880s.  From the very first scene, George struggles to hone his craft and connect with Dot, his model and lover.  He is living a life that seems to cohere only from a distance; when viewed close up, it dissolves—like Seurat’s painting—into pockets of abstraction and isolation.  His relationship with Jules (played by Robert Chambers), a fellow artist, is similarly strained, as is his connection to his family and potential benefactors.  As the story unfolds across two eras (the 19thand 20th centuries) and two cities (Paris and New York), the audience follows George’s struggle to bring order, love, and light to his life.

The entire production of this Stephen Sondheim musical (with a book by James Lapine) is rewarding.  As we’ve come to expect from the Waterworks Players, the intrepid cast offers several creative and entertaining performances. Almost every actor plays two roles: French in the first act and American in the second.  Costumer Elizabeth Whiley is to be commended for recreating the delightful petticoats, parasols, and bowler hats of the figures in Seurat’s painting.   Carole Harper’s musical direction, which emphasizes a moody staccato cadence that recalls Seurat’s innovative dab-dab-dab, is likewise to be praised.  Swanson, capturing the constrained and insecure emotions of an isolated artist, patiently tempers his rich, mellow, hypnotic voice throughout the first hour of the production so that when it finally breaks free—in the soaring, lively piece “Finishing the Hat”—the show itself can also take flight, as stability and clarity begin to emerge from the disjointed chaos of George’s existence.

The revelation of this production, however, is the enchanting Anita Lynn who, in portraying the young Dot and the elderly Marie, serves as the show’s moral anchor.  Her first-act performance of “Everybody Loves Louis” encapsulates the spunky flirtation and plaintive frustration of a woman who merely wants to love.  Her skill on the stage during this number brings a reassuring calm to an initially bumpy and chaotic scene.  In the second act, Lynn shines again in “Move on,” a very fulfilling and effective duet between George and Dot.  This piece is a long anticipated moment of tenderness and connection, the very elements that have eluded George throughout the story.  Laden with promise and harmony, this number becomes a truly beautiful moment between two gifted musicians.  It is the highlight of the show.

“Art ain’t easy,” says George, as if he were speaking directly to the cast and crew that put this ambitious show together.  Clearly this production is a labor of love, but one that should prove thoroughly gratifying to local audiences.

Performances of Sunday in the Park with George are scheduled at 8:00 pm on April 19, 20, 26, and 27 at the Waterworks Theater, Industrial Park Road, Farmville. Tickets, available at the box office (434-392-3452) or the website (http://waterworksplayers.org), are $15.