Ion’s ‘Sunday’ an artful achievement
Light. Balance. Tension. Harmony. Those help compose the litany of artistic principles the painter Georges Seurat recites as bookends to the musical “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Elegance. Fidelity. Devotion. Mastery. Those words could fairly apply to Ion Theatre’s accomplished new production of “Sunday” — remarkably, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s San Diego premiere.
The 1984 work by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine is a complex and cerebral work, one that requires not only highly attentive acting and superior singing but visuals that do justice to the art at its center.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 16.
Where: Ion Theatre at the James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $25-$45 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 600-5020
The Hillcrest-based Ion, working for the first time at the San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium (in partnership with the museum), pulls it off in impressive style, with an excellent cast and winning visual touches that include Blake McCarty’s inventive projections.
His work helps bring the world of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” — the 1884 pointillist masterwork whose creation consumes the musical’s first act — to vivid life, while musical director Mark Danisovszky’s solo performance on piano teases out the colors in Sondheim’s difficult, sometimes jittery score.
As the musical setup for the production suggests, Ion and co-directors Glenn Paris and Kim Strassburger are working with significant limitations for this show. The original Broadway production had an 11-piece orchestra — an all but impossible prospect both for the SDMA space and (likely) Ion’s budget.
The venue also is not immune to noise bleeding in from the restaurant next door (although if you try hard you can pretend it’s part of the hubbub from the crowd of people in the painting).
The Copley is a non-raked auditorium as well, meaning sight lines are a potential issue (don’t sit behind anybody wearing a Seurat-esque grand hat).
And it’s true, too, that the lyrical “Sunday” can be an acquired taste; it’s a quiet, sometimes eccentric piece that develops at a decidedly leisurely pace, and even its most memorable songs (“Finishing the Hat,” “Putting It Together”) aren’t what you’d call hummable.
But leave it to the actors to infuse the work with wit and humanity, starting with Melissa Fernandes in a star turn as Dot, the model and mistress to George (as the central character is known throughout).
She pinballs beautifully (and humorously) between adoration and exasperation in her relationship with the work-obsessed George (Jon Lorenz), and sings appealingly as well, nailing sustained notes as well as the tricky, quick-syllable runs of the title number.
Lorenz can seem tentative on occasion but captures skillfully his character’s sense of obsession, in this piece that’s so much about the tension between the creative life and creating a life; George can step back to see the big picture illuminated by the dots in his painting, but can’t seem to do the same for his increasingly fraught bond with Dot.
The 14-member cast offers plenty of good support. Wendy Waddell is sharp and funny as the snooty but sympathetic wife of another artist, Jules (Jesse Mackinnon, making a very welcome return to local stages); and Morgan Carberry and Charlie Gange earn some of the best laughs as a pair of crass American visitors. (Carberry also plays a very tolerant nurse to George’s mother, portrayed by the one-named Devlin.)
Katrina Heil as young Louise, Walter DuMelle as the rough-edged boatman and Stewart Calhoun as the coachman Franz are also among the standouts in what proves a cohesive ensemble piece.
The action shifts from the 19th century in the first act to the 1980s in the second, with George now the great-grandson of the painter, and an artist in his own right who’s in crisis over the direction of his work: hi-tech light sculptures for which he must collect deep-pocket sponsors.
Janet Turner Pitcher’s costumes capture that decade’s excesses with as much wit and detail as her fussy first-act fashions. And the show’s stirring final scenes dress George’s artistic angst in a sense of hope that it’s never too late to start over.
In that vein, “Move On,” an affecting duet between latter-day George and a vision of the long-gone Dot, conveys the closest thing “Sunday” offers to a statement of purpose: “Anything you do, let it come from you.”