Art, and what it means: a look at Sunday in the Park with George in Concert

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“That’s what it’s been from the start, children and art,” reflects the elderly Marie in the second act of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapines’ Sunday in the Park With George. She sits center stage, propped up in a wheelchair at the end of her life, contemplating legacy — not just for her, but for all of us. What would you sacrifice for art? What is it that we leave behind when we die? And how does this influence the decisions we make right now? These are the questions that Marie, and Sunday as a whole, piercingly forces the audience to consider. This quarter’s ‘concert’ version of Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Ken Savage (Drama BA’14, Communications MA’15), with music direction by Joel Chapman (Music BA ’14, MST MA ’15), stunned its audience with powerful and thoughtful musical reflection on the challenges of creating art.

The piece, which is a collection of thoughts on art through the lens of one man’s life, takes a musical look at the creation of and figures in George Seurat’s painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. George Seurat (Weston Gaylord, ’15) is working on his masterpiece, barely able to separate his identity from his work, while Dot (Jessia Hoffman, ’15) tries desperately to gain his affection and attention. The ensemble of friends, critics, and people who happen to be in the park chime in to help us understand the heartbreak of the struggle to love and create. Yet rather than simply lamenting  the ‘plight of being an artist’, Sunday in the Park with George takes an honest look at the difficulty of figuring out how to leave one’s mark while dealing with the messiness of living one’s life.

The awesome force of the music was powerfully conducted by Chapman and strongly carried by the all-star cast. Without fail, the cast of some of Stanford’s most talented actor-singers (some of whom occupy small roles) shone in every number. The subtlety in the acting, especially when representing variations in age, as well as in portraying vastly different characters (which every member of the ensemble does), added to the sophistication of the production. Junior Kiki Bagger’s heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Beautiful’ moved the audience to feel a deep sympathy for both George and his mother. Praveen Ramesh ‘14 and Sarah Jiang ’16, who played the somewhat evil yet loveable rivals to the two leads, engaged the audience with their stellar representation of our worst-nightmare: critic/friends. Also of note was Rob Biedry ‘15, whose humorous representations of the mechanic and the flirtatious Frenchman give us a much-needed reason to laugh. The rest of the ensemble could also be called out by name, but suffice to say the entirety of the cast was remarkable. The two leads, however, deserve especially high praise for their stunning renderings of Dot/Marie and the Georges. Hoffman stood out with her phenomenal vocal and acting abilities, easily (and believably) slipping back-and-forth between the self-conscious and vulnerable young Dot and the hilariously opinionated and mentally slipping elderly Marie. Gaylord also utilized gifted control of subtlety to enchantingly play the emotionally unavailable Seurat and his far more open and hopeful (and far more sympathetic) great-grandson George.

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Originally intended to be a solely concert version of Sondheim’s musical masterpiece, this piece was anything but. It was simply a play without a set, fully staged with elegant costume design by Asia Chiao (‘15) that reflected George’s musings on the blank (white) canvas. While this facet of the play may have been initially distracting to some, the lack of anything but musicians and actors on the stage was surprisingly freeing. In fact, the empty stage lead the audience to begin the imaginative journey the minute the play began. There was very little that lacked in the piece, a testament to Savage’s precision in enacting a clear vision. Savage skillfully utilized timing, distance, and energy on the bare stage to achieve beautiful images and expose interesting power dynamics between actors. Additionally, Ariana Johnson’s textured and vivid lighting design compellingly enhanced the visual experience of the audience, referencing pointillism slyly with the small light show in the second act.

“The Art of Making Art” (a song in the second act) felt especially ironic given that there were only two performances of Sunday due to the immense cost of using Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Though Sunday began and ended in the same 12 hours, anyone who attended will certainly agree that the consequential thinking about (and humming of) the show did not. There were layers of messages within the intricate story written by Sondheim and Lapine. For an artist, the show grapples with  the weight of the obsessive need to create something new and important, and the indescribable pull of a world in which one’s work is so inextricably connected to one’s self.

While this message is perhaps perceived most easily by a specific milieu, there is no way in which Sunday is simply a show for artists. While anyone can connect to Sondheim’s complex characters, this musical carries a specifically jarring weight for a Stanford audience comprised of hundreds of George’s: passionate future chemists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, senators, start-up billionaires, and yes, even artists. It would be difficult to attend Sunday in the Park with George and not see each audience member reflected in the main character, lost within his or her work to the point of sacrificing the powerful and beautiful relationships within our grasp. Ken Savage’s stark and haunting staging of this mammoth work left his viewers contemplating the cost of their passions while providing hope for the possibility of creating something permanently beautiful and valuable.

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