Stage

Art Factory: Sunday in the Park With... Hey, Where's George?

The potent force of creation and its demands on the artist and others.
The potent force of creation and its demands on the artist and others. Photo by Ryan Perez

There's no question about it. Colton Berry, artistic director and founder of Art Factory, is a major theater talent. His powerhouse voice wails like a rock star's or croons with smooth Broadway belt, his acting is exceptionally clear and true, he directs with finesse, his scenic design choices are right, his costumes speak volumes. In a way, he can do it all. So why he is so absent as George Seurat in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 masterpiece Sunday in the Park With George? Where did Berry go?

The sound mixing at Art Factory has always been the bane of their productions. The pre-recorded orchestral score from Music Theatre International is pumped to a level that borders close to static hotness. No singer can compete with that. Yet Victoria Ritchie, an exceptionally fragrant Dot, George's muse and lover, easily rides above the over-amplified music. Others in the cast do too: Caryn Fulda as George's mother in the wistful “Beautiful,” Jared Dees as rival painter Jules, Luke J. Hamilton as Franz, Luke Yerpestock as Boatman.

Only Berry gets washed out. Granted, most of the cast is un-miked, which is another problem altogether, perhaps caused by finances, but the Art Factory space is not large, so are mics necessary anyway? Just dial down the volume so that everyone can be heard. We don't want to miss those patented Sondheim rhymes and sly verbal wordplay. The words to Sondheim are as critical to the story as is his glorious music. Missing half of Sondheim is some form of patricide. And this musical's suicide.

Although lucid and strong during the tongue-twisting patter of “Putting It Together,” Berry plays Seurat as if literally channeling the criticism he gets from everyone around him, Connect! He's obsessed with his art and shoves everything else in his life to the background. Nothing is more important to him, not Dot, not family, not friends. He is most alive when painting. That's where he connects. Directed by Luke J. Hamilton, Berry covers George in a muffled shell. He plays him muted and soft. This is certainly a valid artistic choice that might work if we could hear him. Now, he just sounds vague. He has missed his star turn. He's a more cohesive great grandson George in Act II. But a Sunday without Seurat is greatly diminished.

But Ritchie steps up and dazzles. Her Dot is very human and empathetic. At the start she may be an illiterate good-time girl, but through her love of Seurat she eventually sees her own worth. She's the only one who appreciates his art, but she must break away from his seeming indifference to find herself. Her piercing numbers, “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On,” are testaments to Ritchie's power and Broadway know-how in putting over a song in full character. The show's original Dot, Bernadette Peters, etched this character in stone, but Ritchie comes mighty close to paradise.

Part of the wonder of this show is how an artist creates, what motivates him, what choices he makes, what choices he discards. It’s one of Sondheim’s most personal works, imbued with a warm nostalgia of regret and time passing, filled with melodies and an eagerness to please, which were never his prime attributes. For years, detractors had labeled his musicals cold and unfeeling, brittle and bitchy.

Some of that is true, but after the disastrous reception of his previous Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim changed partners, dropped veteran director Harold Prince who had guided the early classics (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sweeney Todd), and hooked up with young writer/director James Lapine (March of the Falsettos). The concept musical gave way to a more intimate book musical, and the iconoclastic life and career of Georges Seurat, who set the art world of Paris into convulsions with his radical method of painting, was just the right subject at the right time to revive Sondheim. The musical won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

The cast, while young, do fine work with tricky Sondheim meter and verse. When they gather at the finale of Act I and sing the stirring anthem “Sunday,” where his pointillistic masterwork A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is revealed in a stunning coup de theatre, there were gasps from the audience. (There would be more gasps if the painting were better lighted. It looked faded and washed out. It should shine like stained glass.)

There is immense power in Sondheim – the potent force of creation and the terrible toll it can exact upon the creator and those who have to live with him. This is the first remounting of Sunday since the remarkable 2011 Masquerade Theatre production. It's about time. Now, Berry, give us a George, too, to celebrate.

Sunday in the Park With George continues through July 21 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays at Art Factory, 1125 Providence. For more information, call 832-210-5200 or visit artfactoryhouston.com. $30.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover