Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Sunday in the Park with George
Santa Fe Playhouse
Review by Dean Yannias

Cara Juan and David Stallings
Photo by C. Stanley Photography
I was lucky enough to grow up in Chicago, and The Art Institute of Chicago is lucky enough to possess one of the most famous paintings in the world, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. If you have seen it up close, you surely have realized the tremendous amount of work that went into creating it. It took Seurat two years out of his too-short life to apply all those tiny dabs of colors that when, viewed from a distance, create such a beautiful harmony.

Maybe that's why Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine decided to create a musical based on the painting: to show that, as a famous line from the show goes, "Art isn't easy." (Coincidentally, I just saw a bumper sticker in Albuquerque that read "artwork IS work.") Although it is a major hit on Broadway now, Sondheim's previous show, 1981's Merrily We Roll Along, had been a major flop, closing after 44 previews and 16 performances. A couple of years later, in Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim was telling us that "Hey, it takes a lot of work to come up with an original musical, just like it took a lot of work for Seurat to finish his masterpiece." Creativity doesn't come cheap.

To be sure, Sunday in the Park with George is highly original, but is it great as a musical? There aren't really a lot of melodies. Many of the songs are just avenues for Sondheim to show off his overly aggressive rhyming. I remember hearing Terry Gross interview him on Fresh Air on NPR years ago. She asked him how he composed his songs. He said he would sit at the piano with a rhyming dictionary and write. Now, you don't have to use every rhyme that appears in the rhyming dictionary to write a song, but Sondheim surfeits us with them. How many words rhyme with "exhibition" or "hot"? Turns out, an awful lot, and they're all there in his songs.

That being said, there are plenty of good things, too. The book by James Lapine is outstanding. (The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but did not win the Tony for Best Musical.) The finales of both the first and second acts are so beautiful they can give you goosebumps, but some of the other songs are little more than filler material.

The crucial thing when putting on this show is the staging, and this Santa Fe Playhouse production does a smash-up job. In case you don't know, the first act takes place in 1884, when Seurat repeatedly visits La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine, in order to sketch the Parisians spending their days off there. If you look up the preliminary sketches he did, you will find that each of the major figures you see in the final composition was painted separately. These figures become characters with lives of their own in the musical. Seurat's interactions with them, especially with his mistress Dot, make up most of the act. Then, in a theatrical masterstroke, they all eventually take their places in the painting as we know it now.

The second act is considered less successful by many people, but I enjoy it as much as the first. It takes place one hundred years later in America, and the artist now is also a George (without the s). Although he at first doubts it, it seems almost certain that he is the great-grandson of Georges Seurat. George is creating art with unconventional new techniques like lasers, just as Georges did with pointillism. Maybe this has always been the case in the art world, but art is not just about creating artworks nowadays. It's a business, too. Our contemporary George has to deal with museum curators, art critics, rich patrons, etc. Does he take a lucrative commission which would entail repeating the same kind of art that he has already created, or does he strike out into something new? That's the choice that so many artists have faced and continue to face. One thing you can say about Sondheim: He and his collaborators always struck out for something new.

This production has an exceptional set design, terrific projections, and an amazing laser show. Thrilling! Credit to D. Craig M. Napoliello for the set, Taylor Edelle Stuart for the projections, and Zac Goin for lighting design. Also contributing to the overall effect are the costumes by Cassandra Trautman, hair and makeup by Jacqueline Chavez (although I have to say that the beard Seurat wears in the first act is the worst I have ever seen), props by Emily Rankin, and sound design by Kenzie Uptergrove, with audio engineering by Goiyo Perez.

The whole composition is pulled together expertly by director Anna Hogan. She has also assembled an excellent cast. David Stallings is effective as Seurat and even more so as George. Cara Juan is wonderful as Dot in 1884, but I was not so enamored of her old-lady performance as Marie in 1984. Fortunately, we get to see Dot again–magically–near the end of the show. Everyone else in the cast of fifteen does fine work as well.

Unlike a painting, which is essentially the work of one person, theatre is the work of many talents putting it together, bit by bit. At the Santa Fe Playhouse, these people have put together a show that is not to be missed.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through July 28, 2024, at Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St, Santa Fe NM. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. For tickets and information, please visit