Sunday in the Park With George review: Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece receives a reverent revival out west

Sunday in the Park With George review: Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece receives a reverent revival out west

"Work is what you do for others, liebchen. Art is what you do for yourself."

This pronouncement, in the first act of Sunday in the Park With George, could be seen as something of a mission statement from the late, great Stephen Sondheim. The composer redefined the possibilities of what musical theater could be, beginning as a lyricist on classics such as West Side Story and Gypsy and moving more fully into his own voice writing both music and lyrics, beginning with 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

One could argue that Sondheim considered his days as a lyricist-for-hire as work, while the rest were his attempts at art. But throughout his career of deliciously inventive lyrics and unique melodies, he straddled the line between the work of making theater and the art of writing a musical.

This all coalesced in 1984's Sunday in the Park With George, which he created with book writer and collaborator James Lapine (it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Sondheim never really intended to write about himself, and yet, he always did. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Sunday, a meditation on the cost and loneliness of being an artist.

Sunday in the Park
Sunday in the Park

Jeff Lorch The cast of Pasadena Playhouse's 'Sunday in the Park With George'

Sondheim, who died in 2021, is receiving a major festival honoring his legacy at California's Pasadena Playhouse, beginning with a production of Sunday in the Park With George, which boasts lush costumes, a well-populated cast, and a 14-piece orchestra, the likes of which is rarely seen on Broadway nowadays, much less in regional theater.

The production, directed by James Lapine's niece, Sarna, who also helmed the celebrated 2017 Broadway revival with Jake Gyllenhaal as Seurat, is a loving tribute to the late master. From the iconic Act I finale that brings Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte to vivid life to Graham Phillips' (Blockers, Riverdale) portrayal of Seurat that channels the spirit of original star Mandy Patinkin, the entire production drips with love and reverence for the work and the man who made it.

Taking place on a raised platform in front of a scrim that displays the sketches and artworks of Seurat in real time, the set designed by Beowulf Boritt is as spare and affecting as an artist's garret and as ever-changing as the seasons in a park.

Phillips — who has covered his pretty-boy, CW-worthy face with a 19th-century beard — is a welcome surprise in the role. At 29, he trends young for the part, but that youthful impetuosity and obsession with making a mark on the world shades his portrayal of George with vibrant new colors. All while his moving vocal performance executes the challenging vagaries of the score with aplomb. But in many ways, Seurat is the white canvas he loves so well — the figure upon whom Sondheim paints his deepest beliefs about what it is to be an artist. Phillips' challenge is to embody the spirit of Sondheim's most sacred truths (no small task).

Sunday in the Park
Sunday in the Park

Jeff Lorch Graham Phillips in 'Sunday in the Park with George'

The propulsive force in the narrative is Dot (a radiant Krystina Alabado), who loves George and the beauty he creates with his work, but cannot abide the way he forsakes their relationship for his painting. Dot pushes him to grapple with his loneliness, the agonies of artistic pursuit, and what he is willing to sacrifice.

She, in turn, is a muse who refuses to stay in the neat box he would paint her into. Alabado gives Dot an inner fire that vividly brings to life the character's paradox — the thing she loves the most about George is the very thing that also makes him an impossible choice for a partner. He will make her immortal, but their love has a brief lifespan.

There's a tenderness and care in Alabado's Dot, all buoyed by a latent cheekiness that comes forward even more strongly in her second-act portrayal of the elderly Marie, daughter of Dot and George. Beyond her vocal acuity in the role, she makes it clear that the only thing more agonizing than being an artist is loving one. This all operates on a meta-level, as Alabado and the entire cast seem to infuse their performances with the additional layer of love for Stephen Sondheim himself.

The production is a eulogy for Sondheim, a probing of the ideas about art, loneliness, and love that he laced into the production while also a celebration of his unique gift to tackle such subjects in a genre often known for hummable tunes and rapturous dance breaks. From Clint Ramos' costumes that bring to life the figures of Seurat's paintings to the engulfing impressionism of Ken Billington's lighting and Danny Erdberg's sound design, everything here is a labor of love that pulses with the grief and adoration that pervaded the theatrical community upon Sondheim's passing.

Sunday in the Park
Sunday in the Park

Jeff Lorch Krystina Alabado and Graham Phillips in 'Sunday in the Park With George'

In some senses, this tactic is a shame. Sunday in the Park With George is an upending of form, a radical take on the idea of a musical itself — bringing it to life with such veneration eliminates some of what made it revolutionary in the first place. But that's a minor quibble, when it is so rare to see the work staged with such lushness and care (largely because it takes quite the budget to do so). The production is truly ravishing, a feast for the eyes and ears, and if it's a bit too precious in that regard, it's only because the people making it love it so deeply.

Sondheim was not one for sentimentality, and in many ways, Sunday essays that, acknowledging the complex costs of artistry while also surmising that finishing the hat is worth it in the end. This production, which runs through March 19, is a resounding endorsement of that belief.

They made a hat, in the shape of one that was already there before, but damn if it's still not a breathtaking one at that. A-

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