“Sunday in the Park”: No Picnic, But Art Isn’t Easy

Sunday in the Park with George is great art, and it’s about great art. Master composer Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony (and Pulitzer Prize) musical brings to life a classic canvas by master painter George  Seurat, inventor of pointillism.

Of course, as one of the main songs says, “Art isn’t easy.” Sondheim writes complex music and  lyrics. Seurat made complex paintings. Their works demand close attention — and they’re worth it

[Rachel Berman, Brian Pinat (photo: Shari Barrett)]

The Kentwood Players stage this masterpiece with energy and taste — and considerable resources for a small theatre. (They’ve been in the game for over 60 years.) Music Director Mike Walker leads a 7-piece orchestra, and the 18-member cast has enough skillful singers to fill the major roles and several smaller ones.

Rachel Berman plays Dot, George’s hapless (and wryly named) model in Act 1, then plays their daughter in Act 2. With a clear, versatile soprano, crisp enunciation, and smart acting chops, she carries the lion’s share of the story — and our sympathies (even the play’s title is from her point of view). It’s an impressive turn.

As George, and his namesake great-grandson in Act 2, Brian Pirnat works within strict limits. Laconic by nature and obsessed with his art — traits now seen as signs of autism — George rarely takes the lead, even in private with Dot. Nor does he reveal much  in his solos, beyond a confused lack of insight. His great-grandson, a multimedia artist struggling with self-promotion, isn’t much better. Pirnat handles them well, emerging briefly to assert something (often awkwardly), and muting the force of his light tenor.

Janet Krajeski, as the painter’s mother (Act 1) and an imperious art critic (Act 2), creates strong, complex characters and sings them with power and clarity. Don Schlossman, a rival painter in Act 1 and an art buyer in Act 2, similarly commands the stage, moving and singing with stately strength.

Vincent Paz-Macareno’s comfort onstage, and his rich baritone, make us look to his characters as reliable sources of insight and feeling. Roy Okida likewise gives us characters we believe (even when they’re not being fully honest). And a talent about to emerge is Genevieve Marino: She speaks and moves with authority, and wields a bell-like soprano we can expect to hear often.

On the Westchester Playhouse’s small stage, director Susan Goldman Weisbarth deftly moves her cast through action scenes and song/dance numbers with fluid clarity. And then there are the tableaus, culminating in the evocation of Seurat’s masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte.

Walker’s music direction (after finding the balance between singers and orchestra) shows to fine advantage in the multi-layered choral numbers, notably “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Putting It Together, ” as well as in such duets as “Beautiful” and “Move On.”

Finally, costume designer Ruth Jackson and her team deserve special applause for meticulously dressing the famous figures of Seurat’s grand canvas, as well as the poseurs and careerists of the modern art “industry.”

Sunday in the Park with George asks a great deal of its performers — and audiences. (Seurat’s ambitious paintings also grew slowly toward the acclaim they now enjoy.) The current Kentwood Players’ staging  offers a rich, rare work of art, faithfully and delightfully mounted.
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Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine; directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth.
Presented by Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., LA 90045.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through April 20th.

Tickets: (310) 645-5156 or <www.kentwoodplayers.org>