We think nothing of returning to see a good movie time and again. But apart from the mega-hits, theater infrequently receives that kind of repeat treatment. Nevertheless, the current Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staging of Sunday in the Park with George, the 1983 Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical, is so triumphant in every way that it demanded a re-viewing. I bought a $15 rush ticket — a great deal when you consider that the top price is $77. Although I was seated off to the side, the production was even more enriching the second time. Perhaps the cast had settled in; perhaps I was able to bring a more relaxed perspective to the proceedings. Whatever the reason, I saw much that had eluded me on opening night.
Ralph Perkins' subtle choreography, for instance. The show lacks what we think of as conventional dance; there is no chorus line. Yet the production flows with a fluid grace. Surely much of that sly momentum is due to Perkins' eye for precise yet telling movement.
The many virtues of James Lapine's flinty script also stood out. Good librettos are like good toupees: They don't call attention to themselves. (When they do, they often take the fall for a musical's every shortcoming.) But I had a new appreciation for the smooth integration of the show's book and music. Lapine's muscular script is economical yet packed with information. In portraying Georges Seurat as he strives to complete the iconic pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the libretto is as filled with colors as is the canvas itself. Seurat is obsessed yet short-tempered, passionate yet argumentative, admirable yet prickly.
Lapine has written a complex role by any standard, especially so for a musical, and Ron Bohmer revels in its contradictions. After my first viewing, I described his performance as "robust." That sole adjective hardly suffices to convey the spectrum of emotions Bohmer evokes. Seurat is an Everest for an actor, and Bohmer scales its peaks with assurance and confidence. When, in Act Two, he returns to the stage as Seurat's great-grandson, young and beardless, initially the audience seems unsettled. Perhaps that's because we've been so invested in Georges; we hate to see him go. But then Bohmer sails through "Putting It Together," and he has won over the audience for a second time.
Erin Davie's work also seemed more affecting at a second viewing. Her breath control is marvelous. In Act One, as Seurat's mistress Dot, she reveals wounded emotions by drawing out notes, allowing sound to convey the hurt that Dot cannot articulate in words. The script requires that in Act Two the actress must put on a wig, sit in a wheelchair and portray Dot's aging daughter. It can be a bit problematic, yet Davie is as charmingly credible as the old gal as I've ever seen.
Although this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is nearly 30 years old, during my second viewing I couldn't help but feel that many in the Rep audience were seeing it for the first time. For them, its visual splendors were fresh and sudden. At the end of Act One, as the visitors to the island of La Grande Jatte in the River Seine became the characters in Seurat's painting — a sequence of infinite beauty — the woman sitting to my right suddenly clasped a hand over her mouth, as if to stifle a gasp. At the end of Act Two, when the painting's characters return to the stage to pay homage to Seurat's great-grandson, instead of a gasp there was a single tear.
In just a few days, the Rep's Sunday in the Park with George will be a receding memory. But its images will remain vivid far into the future. Now, among those images will be that hand and that tear, powerful reminders of the wondrous effects of color and light in a dark theater.
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