The dilemma faced by a college company confronting the seeming impossibilities of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's elegant and monumental musical "Sunday in the Park With George," can cut two ways.
The challenge may prove so intimidating that it can result in frozen corpses on stage--precisely the risk in Sondheim's dense extrapolation of the making of Georges Seurat's revolutionary canvas, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," in which the painter's figures come in and out of view, like the trees or boats.
Connecting is what this musical and Joanne Gordon's staging at Cal State L.A.'s State Playhouse are very much about. Here, we have the pleasant case of talent rising to the challenge, even examining the work and adding some fresh strokes (literally, with Richard D. Smart's costumes, painted in the manner of Seurat's pointilliste style).
One does not get, nor should one expect, the shimmering brilliance of the recent Long Beach Civic Light Opera staging. This is college--but college at a level some pros never reach.
Sondheim granted Gordon the rights for this first non-professional production of "Sunday," and it's clear why. Her attendance to the sharp, clean line, to the visualization of the score's mix of syncopation and impressionism, and to well-defined characters (funnier here than at Long Beach, in fact) is the work of a director with a Sondheim-like mind. Other Sondheim shows--even "Pacific Overtures"--allow the director a little slack. Not "Sunday." And Gordon demonstrably knows it.
"Pretty isn't beautiful," George (Robert Villanueva) reminds his mother (Aurelia Sweeney) about his art. "It's what the eye arranges." Wonderful dialogue for any play about an artist--only it isn't dialogue. These are lyrics , which often act in this show as a compass through an aesthetic inquiry into aesthetics.
Along with this journey, which follows George and his model/mistress Dot (Evelyn Joan Halus) through the making of the huge canvas, there's another one: the human costs of making art, which provide Sondheim an opportunity for some of his most moving tunes (" Everybody Loves Louis," "We Do Not Belong Together"). Amid the art-making, we never lose sight of the relationship.
This is as human a musical as has ever been written.
Gordon, Smart and designer Byron Bauer decided to contrast the first act's vibrant colors with the contemporary second act's black-and-white look. It never appears to be a college exam run amok, because black and white are today's fashionable colors. And though we miss George's chromo-lume lasers, budget constraints make for some nevertheless fascinating visuals. They're mechanistic enough so we can understand why the modern Seurat wants to--again--reconnect with the human.
Halus is the truly fine singer here. The title tune and the masterful "Children and Art" show her range and depth; we get not only Dot's desire to move on, but, as George's grandmother, a warm sense of what matters in life.
Villanueva has the passion, but not all the high notes, especially in "Beautiful" or "Finishing the Hat." Casting Sweeney, a black actress, as George's mother, appears to be another comment by Gordon, who is South African by birth. It's an interesting choice that would have worked had Sweeney mastered her songs.
Tad Allyn Doyle and Tia Odiam deliver scene-stealing hilarity as the American couple who stumble into George's world, and the supporting cast manages 19th-Century manners as well as Sondheim and Lapine's biting jabs at today's art world.
We may see stagehands moving the whimsical "Boys Bathing" set or hear that Richard Cordova's orchestra cannot always steer through the score's rich interplay of romanticism and a minimalism that echoes Steve Reich, but this is still an evening brimming with assuredness.
If you missed the first local "Sunday," this is your reprieve.
Performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. end Nov. 23; (213) 224-3344.