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Review: Sunday in the Park with George at Art Factory

Review: Sunday in the Park with George at Art Factory

Review: Sunday in the Park with George at Art Factory

There’s no doubt about it. Colton Berry, Art Factory’s artistic director and founder, is a major theatrical talent. His powerful voice wails like a rock star’s or sings in a smooth Broadway tone, his acting is exceptionally clear and true, he directs with finesse, his set design choices are spot-on, his costumes speak volumes. In a way, he can do it all. So why is he as 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 mix at Art Factory has always been the bane of its productions. Music Theatre International’s pre-recorded orchestral score is pumped up to a level bordering on static. No singer can compete with that. Yet Victoria Ritchie, an exceptionally fragrant Dot, George’s muse and lover, easily stands out above the over-amplified music. Other cast members do, too: Caryn Fulda as George’s mother in the melancholy “Beautiful,” Jared Dees as rival painter Jules, Luke J. Hamilton as Franz, Luke Yerpestock as the Boatman.

Only Berry is left off-screen. True, most of the cast is unmiked, which is another problem, perhaps caused by finances, but the Art Factory space isn’t big, so are microphones necessary anyway? Just turn down the volume and everyone can be heard. We don’t want to miss those patented Sondheim rhymes and clever wordplay. Sondheim’s words are as central to the story as his glorious music. Missing half of Sondheim is a kind of patricide. And this musical is suicide.

Though lucid and strong during the tongue-twister “Putting It Together,” Berry plays Seurat as if he were literally channeling the criticism he receives from everyone around him. Connect! He’s obsessed with his art and pushes everything else in his life into the background. Nothing is more important to him — not Dot, not family, not friends. He’s most alive when he paints. That’s where he connects. Berry, who directs himself here, has covered George in a muffled shell. He plays him quietly and softly. This is certainly a valid artistic choice that might work if we could hear him. Now, he just sounds vague. He’s lost his star turn. A Sunday without George is greatly diminished.

But Ritchie steps up and dazzles. Her Dot is very human and empathetic. At first she may be an illiterate girl having a lot of fun, but through her love of Seurat, she eventually sees her own worth. She is the only one who appreciates his art, but she must break through her apparent indifference to find herself. Their piercing numbers, “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On,” are testaments to Ritchie’s power and Broadway savvy in interpreting a song with all its character. The show’s original Dot, Bernadette Peters, etched this character in stone, but Ritchie comes very 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 is one of Sondheim’s most personal works, imbued with a warm nostalgia for regret and the passage of time, full of melodies and an eagerness to please, which were never his main attributes. For years, his detractors had dismissed his musicals as cold and unfeeling, fragile and mean-spirited.

Some of that is true, but after the disastrous reception of his previous… We move forward happilySondheim changed partners and abandoned veteran director Harold Prince, who had guided the first 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 musical concept gave way to a more intimate book musical, and the iconoclastic life and career of Georges Seurat, who shook up the Paris art world with his radical method of painting, was the right subject at the right time to revive Sondheim. The musical won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985.

The cast, though young, does a fine job with Sondheim’s complicated meter and verse. When they come together at the end of Act I and sing the stirring hymn “Sunday,” where his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte It reveals itself in an impressive way theatre coupThere were exclamations of wonder from the audience. (There would have been more exclamations of wonder if the painting had been better lit. 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 take on the creator and those who have to live with it. This is the first version of Sunday Since Masquerade Theatre’s remarkable 2011 production. It’s about time. Now, Berry, give us a George to celebrate, too.

Sunday in the Park With George continues through July 21 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays at Art Factory, 1125 Providence. For more information, call 832-210-5200 or visit artfactoryhouston.com. $30.