Entertainment » Theatre

Sunday in the Park with George

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 16, 2018
John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi in "Sunday in the Park with George" at the SF Playhouse through September 8.
John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi in "Sunday in the Park with George" at the SF Playhouse through September 8.  

Although it's hard to imagine a more vanilla sounding title than "Sunday In the Park With George," few musicals are more strident and fraught than this 1985 Pulitzer winner that just opened at SF Playhouse.

Director Bill English says he was cautious about mounting this Stephen Sondheim show because it felt so personal. And that vulnerability clings to every note and every troubled glance between leads Nanci Zoppi and John Bambery, even if Sondheim's original vision doesn't really translate through the ages as reliably as the artwork at the show's heart.

The titular George is 19th century Parisian painter George Seurat, played by Bambery with absolutely pained earnestness.

The first half of "Sunday" documents George's troubling experience painting a titanic masterpiece while in full Tortured Genius mode. And if you've met one Tortured Genius you've met them all: moody, sullen, unpredictable, unappreciated by his peers, etc.

Naturally, George is an eccentric who doesn't fit in. Naturally, there's nothing more romantic or Byronic than his misunderstood genius. Naturally, he acts like a lout but the show gives him the benefit of the doubt because, after all, his name is on the program.

Many of the moving parts of "Sunday" are old hat, and probably were even when it was new. The Sondheim score, too, seems a familiar tune, with songs from other Sondheim shows seemingly inserting themselves into this one.

More than once you'll swear the cast is breaking into "Being Alive" from "Company," "A Little Priest" from "Sweeney Todd," or "Your Fault" from "Into the Woods."

Although the music is as complex and demanding as any of those shows, it's less driven and distinct, somewhat directionless for all of its nervous energy.

We should note though that the big exception is the sprawling, full ensemble number "The Day Off," which is virtually an entire musical unto itself, and also features the sublime treat of Bambery snuffling around like a dog. Life is good sometimes.

If "Sunday In the Park With George" were just about George, it might be a disaster, possibly even a tremendous ego piece.

Thank the saints someone had the good sense to at least try to make "Sunday" as much about Dot, George's truly unappreciated love interest played by Playhouse regular Nanci Zoppi, who delivers all of her lines and lyrics with her usual demeanor of delicious breathlessness.

Coiffed and poised onstage, Zoppi looks every inch like a masterwork museum piece portrait. But the real masterpiece is the persistent and inescapable turmoil simmering in her looks and her songs as she tries to push George back onto the rails of their decoupled romance.

And Zoppi brings out the best in her costar as well, as Bambery never looks so sincere or so honest as when the two of them share the stage or a duet. This Playhouse season has been heavy on love stories, several of them good but none as believable as this "Sunday."

English almost foregoes the set in its entirety for this show, mostly relying on projected images of Seurat's renderings of the park.

Projection doesn't particularly suit the painting, making it look faded and distant; on the other hand, the few large-scale diorama pieces of trees and dogs in Seurat style add playfulness that makes the artist seem much more human and relatable by proxy.

For some reason, the second act of "Sunday In the Park With George" jumps ahead 100 years into the future, flies to New York, and suddenly focuses on Seurat's unwitting grandson, also an artist named George played by Bambery.

Why this even happens isn't clear, other than maybe the Paris story didn't furnish enough material for a full-length program. The also-ran tail of '80s George becoming disillusioned with his work isn't bad, but neither is it necessary.

Oddly, this second act material seems more dated than the bits set in the 19th century. Although at least costume designer Abra Berman has some fun with that, and wig designer Landra Tyme furnishes a few fun pieces that provide "Gem & the Holograms" flashbacks.

"Sunday In the Park With George" runs through September 8 at the SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and information visit SFPlayhouse.org.


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