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Onstage’s ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ a Bold Production

June 26, 2008

By Kathleen Allen, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Jun. 26–A weakness for great music, great theater and great courage is all that’s needed to fall in love with Arizona Onstage Productions’ staging of “Sunday in the Park With George.”

This Stephen Sondheim/ James Lapine musical, given a thoughtful and stirring interpretation by director Kevin Johnson and his cast, is smart, with complex music and a can’t-argue-with-that premise.

That premise: An artist must create, no matter the sacrifice. The drive, the desire, the passion is too great to deny.

And thank goodness.

Otherwise, we may not have Sondheim’s brilliant music. Or Johnson’s production of this play despite its high costs. Or Georges Seurat’s great masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884.”

It’s the creation of the Seurat work that serves as the inspiration for the play. Seurat took two years to create the oversize painting, and neither he nor his work was appreciated in his lifetime.

Seurat created the pointillism technique, which uses small, distinctive dots of primary colors that seem, at a distance, to blend to create another color.

Sondheim’s music, beautifully played by nine musicians — that’s nearly twice as many as the Tony-nominated production now on Broadway uses — mimics Seurat’s brushstrokes and theory, shifts quickly, and is complex and lush.

Playing Dot, Seurat’s lover and model, is Kriste Belt, whose crystalline voice and considerable acting chops brought this simple and often tortured character to life.

In the second act, which jumps forward 100 years and features Seurat’s descendants, she plays the painter’s aging daughter, Marie. Her tender delivery of the sweet song “Children and Art” is a showstopper.

Kit Runge had a difficult role in Seurat, a man who can relate to people only as objects in his paintings, and who feels deeply but can’t express it. Runge’s voice on last Friday’s opening night was strong, and his portrayal of the tormented artist effective.

This whole production, in fact, is an effective one. Johnson has a small stage to re-create the massive painting and bring this larger-than-life work to life. With the help of Rob Russo Jr. he infused great fluidity and purpose into the piece, and coaxed strong, stirring performances from his actors.

“Sunday in the Park With George” is a huge undertaking for this small company — Johnson dropped $30,000 on it. It could mean the end of Arizona Onstage — an announcement was made before curtain that ticket sales won’t cover the costs, and a plea was made for donations. After the curtain, cast members lined up with hats in hands looking for cash for the company.

This powerful production of an absolutely stunning musical is rich and well worth the ticket price and then some.

But the sad thing about it is that it could spell the demise of Arizona Onstage. And that would be a shame — the company has produced some of the most daring and riveting musical theater (“Assassins,”"Elegies” and “A New Brain” among them) this town has seen in a while.

Despite the artistic and financial risks, it seems Johnson has a great need to make art. And we are the better for it.

Review

“Sunday in the Park With George”

–By: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

–Director: Kevin Johnson.

–When: Final performances are 7:30 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday. The only performance with seats available is tonight’s, though it’s worth calling to see if there are cancellations.

–Where: Pima Community College, Center for the Arts, Black Box Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road.

–Tickets: $27.50, with discounts available.

–Reservations: 270-3332, or www.arizonaonstage.org.

–Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission.

–Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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