Theater: Color and Light and Endless Possibilities
Pictured above: George (Joseph Bebry) conducts the scene that would become his most famous painting. |. Anthony Graziano photos for NFCT
When the biggest names on Broadway’s stages walked out into the cold air of Times Square after Stephen Sondheim’s death in November of 2021, it was “Sunday,” the title song from “Sunday in the Park with George” that they chose to honor the musical theater composer.
Their performance moved people who love musical theater all over the world to tears, and the theater lovers at Mattituck’s North Fork Community Theatre were no exception.
“Sunday in the Park with George” is not Sondheim’s best known play, but the show, a meditation on the Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a work of art that speaks deeply to people involved in the creative process. And it was a play that was close to Sondheim’s heart — he even took the title of his autobiography, “Look, I Made A Hat,” from his lyrics for this show.
This NFCT cast and crew is bringing their whole hearts to a production on their Mattituck stage that runs through June 4.
“How does the mind become an incubator of vision for the creative gesture?” asks director Huck Hirsch in his program notes. “When artists make things, what everyone sees is the result, the outcome, the thing. This show invites us into the churnings of the creative imagination as it strives to make the thing.”
Seurat initiated the movement of Neo-Impressionism with “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” painted over the course of two summers in 1885 and 1886, with a technique now known as chromoluminarism, in which individual dots of color are blended not on the painter’s canvas, but by the eye of the observer. It’s a technique that requires a scientific precision, but the painting is also much more.
As well as being “a miracle of composition and innovative technique,” said Sondheim in his autobiography, it is also “a satirical piece of reporting. Seurat was as much a cartoonist as a painter.”
The inner lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie depicted in the painting are rich theatrical material, mined expertly by Sondheim and playwright James Lapine.
The show is expertly cast, with strong voices and an ensemble spirit throughout. It is also superbly lit — an essential component of a play that deals so heavily with the precise mood created by natural light. It’s innovatively staged, making full use of the theater’s video wall, holes in the stage used to erect temporary props like trees, and picture frames that are made to be walked through, into the action. A playful pit orchestra filled with strings and reed instruments sets a fine mood, and the period costumes are beautiful. God bless whoever will be charged with washing the charcoal out of Georges’ jacket.
Joseph Bebry has perfected Georges’ intense gaze and focus, creating a veil between himself and the world he observes, bothered by his girlfriend’s affections, both for him and for the Follies where she hopes he will accompany her. He’s a man at home only with his sketch pad and charcoal sticks, or behind a giant canvas in his cramped, hot studio. But he erupts with joy conducting the scene that unfolds as the painting takes form, hands covered in charcoal, moved to near tears by its beauty, just as Sondheim would have been.
Samantha Janover is tender and relatable as the painter’s love interest and model, Dot, who chafes in the sunshine and despises the bustles women of the time were expected to wear. Her weighty decisions — whether to stay with moody and erratic George or to voyage to America with the beloved baker, Louis — are made weightier by her pregnancy, and they drive this show.
Michael Hipp as the loafing boatman and Tom Byrne and Linda Pentz as a pastry-popping southern American couple steal the show — their roles are sly commentary on class and culture — and they eat them up.
The play leaps forward after intermission to the present day, where George’s great-grandson, George, also an artist, played with post-modernist cynicism but also tender resignation by Jim Brodsky, is being feted for his laser installation at an art gallery alongside Seurat’s “Sunday.”
The ensemble’s rendition of “Putting it Together,” a complex and precise musical number that tears apart the economics and social postering of the late 20th Century art world (every time I start to feel defensive/I remember lasers are expensive), is spot on, a crescendo in the arc of this story that somehow manages to lead the audience back to the peace of the park alongside the Seine in a simpler time filled with color and light.
“White: A blank page or a canvas. His favorite,” wrote James Lapine of Seurat. “So many possibilities.”
It’s easy to leave the theater after this show feeling like the future is a blank canvas filled with possibilities. Bravo.
As this show’s producer, NFCT President Liz Liszancki, writes in her program notes, “I know that we are weaving tapestries of memories that connect us all and make us stronger as a community. Art may not be easy, but in my opinion it is always worth it.”
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through June 4. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online at nfct.com or by calling the box office at 631.298.4500.
Education these days is hell-bent on training in science, technology, engineering and math, but it’s the artists who turn STEM into STEAM that drive the engine of innovation forward. The team that put this production together, inspired by their own access to arts education early in their lives, is asking audience members to donate to the Find Your Light Foundation (fylf.org), which helps ensure the arts maintains a place in the education of young people.