George Seurat gets the stage treatment

Joey Clark and Jennifer Eckes give strong performances as Seurat and his lover
Vicki Madsen

"Starting on a hat Finishing a hat... Look, I made a hat Where there never was a hat"

You don't have to look any further than the titles of Stephen Sondheim's two memoirs and compilations of lyrics to see how personal Sunday in the Park with George was to the songwriter. Through this play about two men named George trying to make art a century apart, Sondheim was able to explore his own notions about the meaning of, and the toils associated with, creation.

It's a necessarily messy work, with the tension between artistic precision and emotion, or between the lonely act of creation and the need for social interaction. It's also a show, featuring a book by James Lapine, that avoids any easy answers. The painter Georges Seurat not only doesn't get the girl in the end, he dies just a few years after creating the masterpiece that sits at the center of the play.

Director Karen Weber and a game cast at the Bloomington Civic Theatre dive into this thorny piece, buoyed by a tremendous score but sometimes getting lost amid action and emotions that call for plenty more subtlety than the everyday bombast of musical theater.

In Act One, we watch Seurat as he slowly constructs his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte. Though he is always surrounded by vibrant life, including his model/lover, Dot, Seurat allows painting to dominate his every moment. He is eventually left alone, embracing only his work.

In Act Two, his descendent George is a conceptual artist who is also feeling alone, and somewhat stuck, crafting a series of minimalist multimedia pieces that, one imagines, look pretty much the same. It isn't until a trip to the same island in Paris that inspired his great-grandfather that this George feels ready to "finish the hat."

This isn't just a look into the hidden places where creation happens. Sondheim and Lapine wrestle plenty of humor out of both settings, from the interplay of the working-class characters in Act One to George's attempts to play the crowd at the opening of his latest piece to keep his career moving forward. The moment-to-moment lightness helps to keep the production from being overwhelmed. (The music doesn't hurt, either.)

Joey Clark leads the proceedings as the Georges. He makes each one memorable in their own way. We feel their loneliness, but also the grand energy that makes them tick.

A number of supporting performances are solid as well, including Jennifer Eckes's turns as the women who were willing to love the Georges if he hadn't driven them away, and Alan Sorenson as two different patrons, including Seurat's 19th-century rival, Jules. In other places, the actors struggle to be more than footnotes in the action, just marking time until the next song they get to sing.

The production is certainly handsome, bringing the painting to life in the justly celebrated Act One closer, while adding clever touches along the way. Director Weber has a sure hand throughout, making us pay attention to not just the art but the artists as well.

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