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Huntington Stages Sunday in the Park with George

Second of 15 Sondheim musicals on theater company’s horizon

Last year, the Huntington Theatre Company announced an ambitious long-term project: staging all 15 of the musicals Stephen Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and music for. One of musical theater’s most influential artists, Sondheim has earned eight Tony Awards for his work over a career spanning nearly seven decades. Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois chose Sondheim’s A Little Night Music to kick off the yearslong project in 2015. The gamble paid off handsomely—the production not only won critical raves, but became one of the five highest grossing in the company’s history.

The Huntington is hoping to continue that winning streak tonight with the launch of its 35th season: a production of Sondheim’s 1984 Pulitzer-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, directed, like A Little Night Music, by DuBois. The musical, which includes such well-known songs as “Putting It Together,” “Move On,” and “Finishing the Hat,” was inspired by post-impressionist painter George Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a depiction of a city park bathed in light, populated with children and well-dressed adults, all enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon.

Adam Chanler-Berat as 19th-century neo-impressionist painter George Seurat.

Adam Chanler-Berat as 19th-century neo-impressionist painter George Seurat.

The musical’s first act is set in 1884 and explores the revolutionary way that Sondheim’s fictional Seurat created the painting: a painstaking process known as pointillism, where he applied rigorous scientific visual principles, using thousands of dots, to create his canvases. The second act is set a century later, focusing on a contemporary artist, also named George—Seurat’s great-grandson. Together, the two acts offer a probing examination of what it means to create art.

DuBois says he was drawn to the material because “it’s about the act of creation and about artistic obsession—the highs and lows,” set against a series of love stories. “For me, working on a musical about artistic creation has been both dizzying and profound,” says DuBois, who wanted to direct this production himself because of his longtime passion for the work. (Plans call for several different directors to helm the future Sondheim productions.)

When it first opened in 1984, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich called Sunday in the Park “an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work.” The original production starred Mandy Patinkin as Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his mistress, Dot.

Jenni Barber and Adam Chanler-Berat in he Huntington Theatre Company production of Sunday in the Park with George.

Jenni Barber as Dot and Adam Chanler-Berat as George Seurat (foreground) in Sunday in the Park with George.

DuBois wanted to find actors approximately the same age as the historical characters they play in the first act. Adam Chanler-Berat, who originated the title role in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway, portrays George, and Jenni Barber, who has appeared on Broadway in Wicked, plays Dot.

“I was drawn into Adam’s sense of emotional richness,” DuBois says. “He actually has dark eyes with real fire in them, and that’s exactly how Seurat was described in life and how he’s described in the musical. He has a wonderful creative restlessness as a human being, and he’s an actor who really makes you understand the character in a way that keeps him very human and very approachable.”

DuBois knew he had found his Dot, a role that demands both strong comedic and musical chops, when he saw Barber’s audition tape. “She has a voice like an angel, but emotionally, she’s also very, very, connected,” he says. “The minute we started to work together, I was just like, oh, there she is.”

Also in the cast is Sarah Oakes Muirhead (CFA’15), who plays two very different characters. In Act One, she portrays Celeste 2, one of two gossipy shop girls vying for the attention of a soldier. In Act Two, she appears as Betty, a contemporary fellow artist and friend of the 20th-century George.

Sarah Oakes Muirhead (CFA’15) (far left), with Morgan Kirner and Andrew O’Shanick in Sunday in the Park with George.

Sarah Oakes Muirhead (CFA’15) (from left), Morgan Kirner, and Andrew O’Shanick in Sunday in the Park with George.

Muirhead appeared in last season’s production of A Little Night Music. She says that Sondheim’s lyrics and score for Sunday in the Park require actors to bring the same level of specificity and detail to their roles that Seurat brought to his work. During the first week of rehearsal, cast members “spent eight hours a day at music stands just cracking away at this thing,” she says. “It’s a monster, but it’s stunning music. I think it’s a really beautiful snapshot of what it looks like to be an individual facing creative challenges.”

The production represents a kind of full-circle homecoming for lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (CFA’85). As a senior 31 years ago, Akerlind designed the lighting for a student production of Hamlet at the BU Theatre, where the Huntington was in residence. It was a life-changing experience. “Whatever I achieved at the BU Theatre at 22 years old on that production has everything to do with where I find myself professionally and creatively today,” Akerlind says.

One of the country’s busiest lighting designers (he’s had a hand in approximately 650 productions over the course of his career), Akerlind won a Tony Award for best lighting design of a musical in 2005 for The Light in the Piazza (he’s been nominated five other times as well). In designing the lighting for Sunday in the Park, he says, he took an improvisational and nuanced approach. “Less is more, the simpler the better, all of those ideas are something that I am moving towards more and more. In this production, the idea of how the room can potentially express life in the way that Seurat expresses life in his pictures has largely been given over to projections, so my role is to carve the action out of space while preserving the legibility and luminosity of any projected effect,” he says. (A gigantic drop of Seurat’s painting appears upstage.)

The theater company launches its 35th season at a critical juncture in its history. In March, Boston University sold the BU Theatre and two adjacent buildings for $25 million. This summer, the Huntington Theatre Company reached an agreement with the new owners to remain at 264 Huntington Avenue. The company recently embarked on a capital campaign to raise the estimated $60 million to $70 million needed to fund a major renovation of the theater.

“As a company, we’re feeling very strong and very vital and there’s so much excitement for how this capital campaign can lead to an expansion of our mission,” DuBois says. “We definitely want people to be coming to the doors not just to see theater, but to eat food and see artists coming through the lobby and to really create a sense of cultural collision between the artists and the greater community at large.”

The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Sunday in the Park with George runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through October 16. Tickets range from $25 to $135 and can be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with promo code MILITARY, and students 25 and under can purchase tickets for $20. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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