Zach Theatre's Sunday in the Park With George

Zach relalizes the Sondheim musical with near flawless execution but has little in the way of emotional reward

Cecil Washington Jr. (r) as Georges Seurat and the cast of Sunday in the Park With George (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

At open, we see a man painting. His model, Dot, is standing in the sun. She feels hot and stiff and she has eyestrain. The artist, however, is oblivious to her existence, beyond her relationship to his work. This is Georges Seurat, the post-impressionist French painter in the 1880s.

The scene is clever and quirky, and it sets the stage for Sunday in the Park With George (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine). The first act tells the now-familiar story of the obsessive male artist who eventually chases away his female lover through neglect, favoring his work instead of real human connection. His deepest desire is to impose aesthetic order on chaos, represented by the characters of Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, who live out their desires, secrets, and betrayals all around him.

In the second act, we see Seurat's genetic and artistic descendants a century later, creating the same conditions of chaos and distraction, with the same response. The larger story illustrates the driving desire of a great artist to make something new and beautiful, whatever the cost.

Zach Theatre's production is a curious case of near-flawless execution, with very little emotional reward. The music of Sunday in the Park is technically difficult, and the cast rises superbly to the challenge (direction by Dave Steakley, musical direction by Allen Robertson). As Seurat, Cecil Washington Jr. is remarkable, showing just how versatile and skilled a performer he is. Jill Blackwood imbues Dot with notable heart for a character so confined by circumstance, and Amber Quick and Amy Downing deliver great performances from the ensemble, which is strong throughout.

Susan Branch Towne's costumes are a delight, although they do make one grateful that we no longer live in an age in which bustles are a thing. Cliff Simon's set is smart and aids the production.

As a composer of musical theatre, Sondheim has attracted a devoted and passionate following for whom he can do no wrong. Acknowledging that, and the major awards that Sunday in the Park With George won in the Eighties and Nineties, this is still a flawed musical. The first act pretty much says it all, and the second fails to offer any additional profound resolution. Again, the performers deliver beautifully, and it's great to see the younger George (Washington) and the elderly Marie (Blackwood) exercise their comic timing and character work. In this production, however, the younger George's challenges don't engender much investment from the audience, and the elder George's story fits a now-familiar narrative pattern – and hey, the tortured male artist who treats his family like crap is a valid paradigm because look at all of them out there, right? Only, when Sunday in the Park is placed in that context, what leaps out from this production is the technical mastery of the music, not a unified comment on the artist or his process.

The problem with Zach's production is ultimately the same problem that the character George experiences in his personal life: In seeking to achieve technical and aesthetic mastery, he fails to live fully within the human experience.

Sunday in the Park With George

Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/465-0541
Through June 24
Running time: 2 hr., 40 min.

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Zach Theatre, Cecil Washington Jr., Jill Blackwood, Dave Steakley, Allen Robertson, Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine, Amy Downing, Amber Quick, Susan Branch Towne, Cliff Simon

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