A painting comes to life

Foothill Music Theatre offers a pleasant 'Sunday'

"Sunday in the Park with George," the musical celebrating painter Georges Seurat in a fictionalized way, debuted on Broadway in 1984, heralding composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's renewed interest in musical theater. It also marked his first collaboration with librettist James Lapine (with whom he would go on to create "Into the Woods"). After racking up a respectable number of Tony nominations and awards, in 1985 it garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only eight musicals ever to do so.

Yet it isn't produced that often, perhaps because of Sondheim's demanding score and the challenge of creating an ever-changing backdrop depicting Seurat's famous pointillist painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." So the current showing by Foothill Music Theatre is a welcome and ambitious undertaking, sure to please Sondheim fans as well as those new to the particular joys of his oeuvre.

In Act One, we meet the painter, called simply George (Tyler Bennett; sharing the role with Sergey Khalikulov), as he is working on a large painting he knows will be his most important work to date. He's come up with a new technique of placing different colors of dots in close proximity, so that the human eye, viewing the painting from a distance, merges the colors. While his mistress, Dot (Katie Nix), complains about modeling in the hot sun, George labors to capture the stunning light coming off the Seine and the many colorful characters populating the island.

Those characters include his mother (Linda Piccone) and her nurse (Vanessa Alvarez), two young women (Katherine Goldman, Megan Coomans) eager to meet a soldier (Adam Cotugno), a successful art critic (Kevin Kirby) and his wife (Caitlin Lawrence Papp) and daughter (Chloe Zeldin or Chloe Allen), a rough boatman (Sam Nachison), servants Franz (Joey McDaniel) and Frieda (Mylissa Malley), a baker (Michael Weiland) and American tourists (John Rinaldi, Holly Smolik). They comprise most of the visible figures in Seurat's painting, here brought to life and then placed by the artist in his work. Like the artist on whom he is based, George dies young, barely recognized and even shunned, having struggled to earn notice for his life's work.

Act Two brings the action into modern times, again fictionalizing Seurat's life and his descendants (he had none) and plunging the audience into the commercial world surrounding art. Each actor takes on a different role, with a few clever contiguities and contrasts. The modern George struggles just as the earlier artist did -- success is only as deep as your latest commission -- and also seeks affirmation and inspiration. Along the journey there are odes to the call of creativity and the necessity of ignoring critics.

Foothill's production plays out on a bare stage with a colorful backdrop animated by projections, showing the painting in progress and in its finished state. Director Milissa Carey wisely relies on lively staging (including Amanda Folena's choreography) and her ensemble's excellent vocal skills to deliver the story and carry the show. Nix and Bennett have the bulk of the heavy lifting, vocally speaking, and they're both quite up to it. Some dramatic moments seemed to fall a little flat on opening night, as if there wasn't enough importance attached to the topic, and Dot and George lacked chemistry -- they felt too distant during their big duet, "Move On." Hopefully the show will gel a bit as it continues, as the ensemble is strong and talented.

Costumes by Robert Horek imitate those of the painting, but the use of corsets and bustles was inconsistent. Scenic designer Bruce McLeod, lighting designer Michael Rooney and video designer Erik Scanlon together create a beautifully effective spectacle, combining imagery with light and a deceptively neutral stage. Music director Dolores Duran-Cefalu guides the ensemble well and manages a large, full sound from her small orchestra.

Sondheim's pointillistic music and Lapine's fanciful book may at times test audience sensibilities, but Foothill's production makes it theatrically pleasing, bringing out the soaring ballads, the charming duets and the timeless advice to follow one's passion -- wherever it may lead.

What: "Sunday in the Park with George," presented by Foothill Music Theatre

Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Ave., Los Altos Hills

When: Through March 8: Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Special matinee Saturday, March 7 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $20-$32.

Info: Go to foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.

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