“Sunday in the Park with George” is back in a winning, re-thought version

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Graham Phillips standing with six dancers surrounding and leaning towards him
Graham Phillips and company in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Axelrod Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Micheal Hull)
The cast dancing on stage
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Axelrod Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Micheal Hull)

Great artists sacrifice themselves and, at times, their relationships with others in order to produce masterpieces of creation. It may sound like a cliche, but it’s true. In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 musical Sunday in the Park with George, itself a masterpiece of creation, this truth is explored in a fanciful retelling of the life of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat as he completes his monumental A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — and the life of his imagined great-grandson, a modern-day artist also named George.

Those who have seen this show in its various Broadway incarnations are used to seeing a sort of magical realism on stage. Scenery flies down from the ceiling, rolls in from the sides, and pops up from the stage floor. But the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal has opted to do without this kind of stage magic, relying instead on more traditional tricks in scenic designer Ryan Howell’s book, with projections of the work in progress, created by designer Brad Peterson, splashed on an upstage canvas screen. Here, trees are large ladders on wheeled bases, painted white, and dogs are lifelike yet abstract puppets. The audience’s imagination is, as in Shakespeare’s day, called on to create the full picture.

The result is a delightful re-imagining of the original show, in which both the characters on stage and the members of the audience are partners in creation. This version of Sunday also integrates dance into the story using six ballerinas in solid-color leotards as  living representations of the paints on an artist’s palette, their movements suggesting artistic inspiration.

We start by watching Georges (Graham Phillips) sketching ordinary people in the park, creating back stories for them (“The Day Off”, “The One on the Left”, “Gossip”), and his mistress and model Dot (Talia Suskauer). The unknowing models include Georges’ artist friend Jules, his wife Yvonne, and daughter Louise (Bernard Dotson, Katie Davis, and Ella Mangano); their servants Franz and Frieda (Kevin Arnold and Isabel Lagana); a surly boatman (James C. Harris); two shopgirls, both named Celeste (Guiliana Augello and Bridget Gooley); two soldiers (Anthony Cataldo and Dylan Randazzo); and an old lady and her nurse (Joy Hermalyn and Allie Seibold), among others.

Dot is growing increasingly tired of Georges ignoring her needs in his passion to create his latest picture. She finally breaks up with him (“We Do Not Belong Together”), seeking out the more congenial baker Louis (Randazzo), even though she is pregnant with Georges’ child (“Everybody Loves Louis”).

The old lady, revealed as Georges’ mother, urges him to draw everything before it has faded into memory (“Beautiful”) – and to connect with other people. Eventually, Georges finally gets all his pieces into place, creating a stunning masterpiece, his triumph of combining color and light (“Sunday”).

In the second act we are introduced to George (Phillips), the grandson of Marie (Suskauer), who was Dot and Georges’ daughter. George is a sculptor and inventor, creating mechanical image generators called “chromolumes” — a combination of the Greek word for color and the Latin word for light. Like his great-grandfather, George has managed to shut himself off from human contact as much as possible. He is surrounded by project partners, jealous friends, art critics, foundation grantors, museum politicians (“Putting It Together”); he is divorced from the still-supportive Elaine (Augello). Only Marie, with her memories of Dot’s stories about Georges, encourages him to connect with others and re-find his own artistic vision (“Children and Art”).

The play ends with George, finally ready to strike out in new artistic directions and make human connections (“Move On”, “Sunday (reprise)”), saying the same words his great-grandfather said at the start: “White…a blank page or canvas.” The act of creation is eternal.

The cast is superb, handling both the Paris of the early 20th Century and the art scene of the early 21st Century under the firm direction of Eamon Foley. Phillips and Suskauer are incredible as Georges/George and Dot/Marie, with powerful emotive voices more than doing justice to Sondheim’s brilliant score. Joy Hermalyn provides motherly humor as the Old Lady and a modern-day art critic. The entire cast, down to the smallest roles, evoke the emotions and motivations in James Lapine’s book as well as Sondheim’s score while bringing two different communities to life on stage.

Special credit goes to the six members of the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater company who appear as muses in the first act, and in a surprising role in the second act (which I will not spoil by revealing here). They are Giana Carroll, Alyssa Harris, Lindsay Jorgensen, Olivia Miranda, Sarah Takash, and Gillian Worek. Performing Eamon Foley’s choreography, they provide an imaginative new aspect to this musical. Credit too goes to the orchestra, set up on opposite sides of the audience, led by Jacob Yates, which provides a warm and full but never overpowering accompaniment to the proceedings on stage.

Sunday in the Park with George may be familiar to many in the area, but this creative redesign of the original is worth seeing, no matter how familiar one might be with the story. The director and designers have created a substantially different, emotionally satisfying version of this classic musical that makes the trip to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal one worth taking.  I strongly encourage you to see Sunday in the Park with George before its all-too-brief run ends.

Sunday in the Park with George is presented by the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal through March 24, 2024.  For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to axelrodartscenter.com or call 732-531-9106, ext. 14.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.