MPT’s “Sunday in the Park With George” puts it together

The two leads carry the complex Sondheim musical
MPT’s “Sunday in the Park With George” puts it together
It's hot up here: The cast of MPT's latest production recreates Georges Seurat's most famous painting in a set that's both complex and simplistic. 

“All that the eye arranges is beautiful.”

A nice sentiment, to be sure, and also a useful shorthand for the artistic style of the French post-impressionist Georges Seurat–he’s the one that utters the line–the subject of Stephen Sondheim’s heady musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” Where everyone else in the late 1800s was stroking away with their standard-issue brushes, Seurat preferred to get right to the point‹as in creating intricate paintings with thousands of individual points of color that forced the eye to compose pink from red and blue. The audience had to do the complicated heavy lifting, but the end results were both breathtaking and groundbreaking.

Such is also the case with Sondheim’s musical, staged this past weekend by Middleton Players Theater. “Sunday” isn’t an easy musical to wrap your head and heart around–its unusual structure and ideas about the sacrifices necessary to create art require some heavy lifting by the audience. It lacks some of the inherent hooks of other Sondheim faves–the splashy blood of “Sweeney Todd,” the familiar storybook characters of “Into the Woods.” But thanks to knockout singing performances by Thomas Kasdorf (in the dual roles of Seurat and his great-grandson, George) and Kate Mann (as Dot, Seurat’s lover and muse and George’s grandmother, Marie) the production delivers enough emotional heft to go with its artistic eye candy.

“Sunday” takes as its unifying theme and visual image Seurat’s greatest masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte,” a painting featuring a disparate group of people (including Seurat’s mother and lover) lounging in a lush green park. The Skylight Music Theatre-designed set, like Seurat’s evolving painting, is like a collection of jigsaw pieces waiting to be united by its creator. Triangular pillars on the edges of the stage spin as the artist’s vision comes into focus, while cutout trees descend and ascend from the space above the stage at the artist’s command. It feels both complicated and simplistic at the same time, and it’s often gorgeous to watch.

The first act tracks Seurat’s struggles to realize his vision at the expense of his relationship with Dot–and, frankly, with human contact altogether. The second flashes forward to find Seurat’s great-grandson struggling with the schmoozy and competitive demands of the modern art world. The cast members play the various people in the painting, squabbling, flirting and complaining when they’re not singing beautifully together, which, thankfully, occurs often. There’s no shortage of funny and amusing moments for each of them, but it’s the leads who get all the character development.

Mann, who’s been part of a bunch of choruses and ensembles of late (“The Rocky Horror Show,” MPT’s own “Jesus Christ Superstar”) gets another chance to headline, and reminds us (again) why she should be doing it a lot more often. Her strong and sweet voice is perfect for Dot, as are her
mannerisms. She completely captures the essence of a woman who’d do anything to catch the eye of the man she loves–modeling for him, putting up with his misanthropic eccentricities, even teaching herself to read for him, but knows it’ll never quite be enough.

Kasdorf, who’s been waiting to stage this musical and play this particular role for several years, does his best to try to humanize his character. And while his voice is strong and his performance is compelling–just try to listen to him sing “Finishing a Hat,” without your heart cracking a little–Seurat¹s a raging misanthrope, and it’s a little hard to embrace a guy
who won’t even acknowledge his own child. Luckily, he gets to show a little more humanity as the modern George, skillfully rat-a-tatting the raid-fire lines in “Putting it Together,” one of the show’s highlights.

Like Seurat’s painting itself, MPT’s production rewards patience and effort. As the song says, art isn’t easy.