Did Vincent DeGeorge, Julie Spangler, and the cast of “Sunday in the Park with George” change my mind about Sondheim?
Tonight was the opening of CCM’s production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” a quizzical piece of musical theatre that’s never really set box office records despite its lush score and superstar casting. (Mandy Patinkin and Jake Gyllenhal have portrayed the title character in less than blockbuster productions). There are likely several reasons — the musical itself is complex (as is the case with many of Sondheim’s pieces), the action slow-paced, and the second act a little bizarre.
I was not exactly beating down the door to attend.
But, this was the last show for several seniors in the Class of 2022, I’m a big fan of director Vincent DeGeorge, and this is the first show that Julie Spangler has musically directed in quite some time. So I begrudgingly ordered my tickets as soon as they went on sale. And thankfully, I was able to get one before they sold out. Even with expanding the seating capacity to 100% in this phase of almost-post-COVID times, every seat was filled tonight — something you don’t always see at CCM. (Which, by the way, always baffles me. For some reason, the exceptional talent on stage and off is a Cincinnati secret.)
The stage was sparse; a staircase and a set of perpendicular white screens filled the Cohen Studio. For the first time ever in my history of attending shows in this space, there was an orchestra pit at the front of the stage. I was seated too high up to watch the masterful Spangler at work, but I’d pay for a seat in the pit just to study her genius.
The show started. The cast, costumed in stark white and off-white period dress, eventually filled the stage while the leads — Christian Feliciano (“George/George”) and Britta Cowan (“Dot/Marie”), lulled us into comfort immediately with their magical voices. This was special, and it felt that way from the very start.
I won’t bore you with too much plot, but basically, George and Dot are lovers who have a falling out over George’s passion for his art overtaking his life. Dot becomes pregnant but leaves the country with Louie the Baker. It’s all very sad.
There are other characters to fill out the bloated first act with side stories, including the very funny Jake Waford and Rose Messenger as southern Americans on vacation. Sasha Spitz uses her eyes to heighten the presence of “Yvonne,” while Jack D’Angelo (“Jules”) and August Bagg (“Franz”) add a sense of gravitas to the stage. D’Angelo’s baritone notes when he first starts to sing and incredibly stunning. Tate McElhaney (“Boatman”), Zoe Mezoff (“Frieda”), and Cynsere Stevens (“Louie) also add texture to the first act. Sarah Pansing (“Old Lady”) and freshman Lucy Acuna (“Louise”) are also hilarious and make the most out of their lines. Delaney Benson and Haley Root play “Celeste” and the other “Celeste” and almost steal their scenes with the deadpan comic timing and facial expressions.
The second act starts with the cast posing as George’s painting, but we learn that he’s died. Fast forward to 1984, and we meet George’s heir, also named George, who is a hot young artist having a showing of his digital work. Bagg is now “Dennis,” a minor character that I would have loved to know more about, and wholly transformed into a different person on stage for Act Two. So did Nick Pattarini (“Bob Greenberg”), who really shines in the second half. I want to also mention Benson, who had six lines as “Elaine” but somehow made them feel like so much more.
George is accompanied to the art show by Marie, his grandmother, who is the granddaughter of George and Dot. Cowan, a senior, is as superb a performer as you’ll see anywhere. Her command of these characters is skilled; she’s a fantastic actress. But her ability to sing the score with such precision and fine melodic tone while acting — especially as a 90+-year-old woman — well, it’s just extraordinary. Feliciano anchors the show with his professional performance, charm, and charisma.
The acting is superb from the entire cast; they walk right up to the line of “over the top” and do not cross it. The jokes all work and the humor is a necessary asset to keep things moving. Also, there are no out-of-tune notes here from anyone, and that’s a feat given the complicated and nuanced compositions. Spangler is a unicorn in her ability to arrange and conduct and play; she’s simply the best at what she does.
Eventually Cowan transforms back into Dot, and the fabulous Sarah Pansing returns as original George’s mother to cap off what could have been a very dull and underwhelming show. But under DeGeorge’s deft hand, the show worked so well that I left the theater rethinking my position on Sondheim.
I know it’s heresy for someone who loves theater as much as I profess to not like Stephen Sondheim. And now that we’ve lost him, I feel like even more of a heel. But this production has made me reconsider. The beautiful thing about CCM is that when all the departments come together and are on the same page, literal magic happens. Costume Designer Iris Harmon, Sound Designer Alex Brock, Tiara Jones’s wigs and makeup, lighting designer Alaina Pizzoferrato, Props Manager Suzanne Barnes, Dialect Coach D’Arcy Smith, and media and scenic designer Jason Bowden all worked together to carry out DeGeorge’s overall vision. And what a vision! To take a show like this, that’s notorious for its complexity and its tendency to be a little mundane and make me — a Sondheim detractor — a potential believer? Well, that takes a genius, frankly.
I’m certainly not going to be joining my friend Rick Pender as a Sondheim aficionado anytime soon. But, I may not automatically skip the production of “Into the Woods” this summer at The Carnegie now. I might not hesitate to see “Company” on Broadway in May (I’m visiting for a week to see the Senior Showcase, the CCM cabaret at 54 Below, and to connect with as many friends as possible) if there are discounted tickets available.
I won’t completely identify as a Sondheim fan just yet — but DeGeorge, Spangler, and company have given me something to think about.
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs this weekend only at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It is sold out, however, they sometimes offer a walk-up waitlist if you’re interested. Check out the official digital program here. The CCM Senior Class of 2022 makes their NYC debut on May 10th at Five Angels Theatre at the 52nd Street Project. If you’re in the city, you can RSVP at this link.