Lo-Fi High Hopes
Modest Production Spotlights Stephen Sondheim’s Smart Songwriting
The modern musical is in danger of disappearing from small stages. Many hit shows—from Les Miserables to Phantom of the Opera—rely so much on the bombast and bluster of their big-budget, big-stage productions that their whole reason for being evaporates if they move to any Baltimore stage other than the Lyric or the Hippodrome. Does anyone really want to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s derivative drivel in the stripped-down intimacy of a small theater?
Stephen Sondheim, of course, is the exception to any generalization you might make about the modern musical. His songs are so smart—both verbally and musically—that they can thrive on any stage. Just two years ago, Center Stage proved how well Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd can work with a smaller cast and a modest production. Now the Fells Point Corner Theatre is attempting to mount Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George in a bare-bones production. The results are mixed.
On the one hand, the intelligence of Sondheim’s songs are more obvious than ever when the performers are just a yard or two away from the front rows, as they are in Fells Point. Dot, the mistress of French Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, comes to the front of the stage to share her silent thoughts while modeling for her boyfriend. Her song about the itch beneath her breast and the frustrations of loving a self-absorbed artist are far more vivid in a conversational delivery than they would be in the brassy belt required by a bigger theater.
On the other hand, Sunday in the Park With George depends on a visual trick that the FPCT can’t quite pull off. All the characters in the first act, except for Seurat himself, are figures in his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” By the end of the act, all the characters are supposed to assume their positions as the stage becomes a three-dimensional replica of the famous painting. The FPCT gives it a good try, but some less-than-convincing hairpieces and the underwhelming background prevent us from giving in to the illusion.
The show’s book, written by James Lapine, concerns Seurat’s struggle to develop his new painting technique even as he struggles to pay his bills, to mollify more powerful artists, and to hold on to his mistress. He grows so obsessed with his pointillism that he sinks into ill health, alienates his old art-school classmate Jules, and drives Dot into the arms of the local baker.
In the second act, Seurat’s great-grandson George unveils a computerized light installation at the Art Institute of Chicago as a tribute to his ancestor’s painting. The young artist finds that, as one song puts it, “art isn’t easy” in 1984 any more than it was in 1884 for his great-grandfather.
There are 18 different performers onstage in this nonprofessional production, and inevitably some are better than others. The most vivid impressions in the supporting cast are made by Brian Douglas as the pompous bourgeois painter Jules, Paul Ballard as the two-timing servant Franz, and Adele Russell as the feisty servant Frieda. Elsewhere there are some missed notes and some wooden lines.
What carries the show are the two leads. As both Seurat and his great-grandson, Randall Dunkle doesn’t have a strong voice, but he’s a terrific actor and he makes the lyrics come alive in the intimate surroundings, especially when he’s rolling round and barking like the dog he’s painting or obsessively stabbing at a canvas with his paintbrush. He pulls off the difficult task of making Seurat self-absorbed without making him unlikable.
The best thing about the show, however, is Santina Maiolatesi, who plays both Dot and her daughter Marie. Maiolatesi has a big voice that she wields with confidence. When she sings about choosing between the painter and the baker on “Everybody Loves Louis,” she reveals a lover’s indecision even as she makes the most of Sondheim’s puns and tripping melody. The actress is smart enough to make her illiterate character not very smart at all and yet extremely appealing.
When Dunkle and Maiolatesi are onstage by themselves, arguing about whether it’s more important to keep working on a painting or to go off to the Follies and have some fun, they prove that the modern musical can flourish on this small, personal scale. Despite the show’s other flaws, the pleasure of these scenes should convince more Baltimore theaters to find musicals that depend on wit rather than budget, invention rather than spectacle.
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