Floating film reels and the smell of fresh popcorn fill the lobby of San Jose’s 3Below Theaters & Cafe, but one should not be fooled by the moviegoer facade. Past the filmic atmosphere lies the live musical performance space of San Jose Playhouse, and this time, “Sunday in the Park with George” has taken the stage.
Spanning two acts, “Sunday in the Park with George” imagines the life of 19th-century French artist Georges Seurat as he paints his most notable work: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Fast forward to the 20th century, Seurat’s great-grandson George navigates an artistic endeavor of his own, filling the shoes of his great-grandfather. Although the musical fictionalizes Seurat’s life — his children didn’t live past infancy, for one — original director and librettist James Lapine and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sought to express their introspections on the French painter through the medium of the musical.
Live projections by lighting and projection designer Jon Gourdine held a staple presence in “Sunday in the Park with George.” Bordered by an ornate frame, the screen functioned as a blank canvas as Georges Seurat (Stephen Guggenheim) stepped onto the stage, sketching the air with full concentration. Lines appeared across the canvas in tune with Guggenheim’s direction until the audience was left looking at a sketch of the familiar park, setting the background for the first act.
It wasn’t until Georges’ muse Dot (Julia Wade) emerged that the musical entered its first song. With a parasol in hand, she posed for the artist with complete stillness, only moving the muscles of her face to sing the title song. Balancing playful whimsy and rich lucidity, Wade’s voice resonated throughout the theater, her winky smiles and tender blushes breathing life into the prominent figure of Seurat’s painting.
Georges’ obsessive dedication to his craft and Dot’s fun-loving affection toward Georges painted the disparity in their relationship. The manic melody of “Color and Light” made these struggles known. As Wade brightly sang Dot’s introspective musings of insecurity and longing, Guggenheim rapidly repeated the names of colors with impressive clarity. Though the characters were in the same room — Dot dreamily powdering her face while Georges unrelentingly dotted his paintbrush at the audience — their minds drifted in perspective.
From lifesize cardboard cutouts of figures in Seurat’s painting to creamy French pastries smearing the mouths of American tourists, the props of “Sunday in the Park with George” evoked a wide range of texture and comedic innovation. Julie Engelbrecht’s costume design equally dazzled the stage, exaggerating female silhouettes with 19th-century bustles. In a dizzying scene of bickering characters, Dot spun around in the chaos, an abrupt stop bringing in laughs as her pregnancy was revealed through a turned-around bustle.
Departing from 19th-century Sundays in the park, the second act swiftly time-traveled to a 21st-century Chicago art museum. With each actor positioned behind the frame of the imagined canvas, they formed a live reproduction of Seurat’s finished painting. Singing “It’s Hot Up Here,” they each amusingly complained about the confining restlessness of being frozen in time — bodies captured out of proportion, the stifling smoke of a perpetually-lit cigar — building into a resounding meld as they collectively sang their shared protests.
Each actor naturally transitioned into their respective act two characters. Playing Georges’ great-grandson, George, Guggenheim robustly sang beside Wade, kindling the buoyant hopefulness of “Move On.” Torn between the inspiration of his great-grandfather’s innovative pointillist technique and the weight of self-doubt, George turned to the past to awaken unabashed creativity in the present. In an instant, the white of an empty canvas returned to the stage, bringing the audience and George full circle by inviting them to muse over the boundless possibilities of blank space.
With the multitude of tastes and opinions in the world, producing art is a vulnerable venture. “Sunday in the Park with George” is no exception. It uniquely reflects on art by uniting the artist with the viewer, stretching their imaginations as one to form a new trail of inspiration. It’s a reminder that only when those imaginations are acted upon that another piece of art can be left behind to bring out the artist in each viewer that comes along.