J-Term Musical Brings Color and Light to Town Hall Theater

By RILEY BOARD

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Performers are staged in a tableau of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

The life of French impressionist Georges Seurat, and that of his great-great-grandson George, served as the backdrop for a cast of 22 Middlebury College students and members of the Middlebury community to showcase their talents on the stage and behind it in the J-term musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” which ran Friday, Jan. 25 through Monday, Jan. 28. 

Now in its fourteenth year, the collaborative production between college students and the Town Hall Theater put on a unique and impressive performance showcasing talented singers and actors enhanced by compelling technological elements.

Playwright James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” tells a fictionalized story of Seurat, his love interest Dot, their daughter Marie and their great-great-grandson George, an artist who works with light and video rather than canvas. The story shines a light on how a devotion to art can isolate the people who create it and depicts men deciding how much they are willing to sacrifice for their work.

“The core of the show is about finding beauty in the most ordinary things and being reminded why we create art,” said Zach Varricchione ’21, who played George.

The J-term musical had its first run in 2004, when Doug Anderson of the Town Hall Theater and Carol Christensen, an affiliate artist with the college, collaborated to allow students to perform musical theater with faculty guidance. In order to involve as many students as possible, Anderson and Christensen choose musicals with large casts and choral numbers.

The musical poses a challenge because of the limited rehearsal time frame — students began rehearsing music with Christensen at the end of the fall semester and staged the show in J-term, giving the performers, directors and stage managers only three weeks to successfully produce a full musical. The particular difficulty of Sondheim musicals made this year’s musical uniquely tricky, but they managed to accomplish it regardless.

“You’re working from the first day as hard as you can. There’s no sitting back; it requires an amazing amount of professionalism from the cast, and we’ve really seen it with this company,” Anderson said. “This is one of the most challenging musicals to do in any situation; to do it in J-term is a challenge that they really rose to.”

The J-term musical provides a unique opportunity for the town and college to come together: in fact, most members of the sold-out audiences at “Sunday in the Park” were community members, not students. 

“I feel like we connect with the town through the shows,” said Ashley Fink ’19, who played the role of Dot in half of the performances.

The community responded positively when the musical was first introduced over a decade ago and has continued to show support. 

“Students and audiences responded enthusiastically — it’s a great town and gown opportunity — and Doug and I have been committed to doing a musical with historical significance, or which has a strong message, ever since,” Christensen said.

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Ashley Fink ’19, as Dot, reads from a grammar book in a park.

“Sunday in the Park” provided a musical hurdle for the cast to overcome. 

“The music is really hard, this show is so unexpected, it’s gorgeous, but it’s really hard work and it takes a lot of diligence and practice,” said Olivia Christie ’19, who also played Dot.

Several other cast members remarked that the music was difficult to learn and required time-consuming effort to master. However, on the stage, the “disjunct melodic lines,” as Christensen put it, didn’t appear to be a challenge to the performers at all. Although the music may have been, as she also noted, difficult to hum on the way out of the theater, audiences were left instead to ponder on the themes of the show and the beautiful, skillful voices of its cast.

“[Sondheim is] a very tricky and even controversial composer because some of his music is so out there and difficult to learn,” said Will Koch ’21, who played Jules, a fellow artist and a condescending critic of Seurat’s work. “That being said, when you do learn it and really get it down, the end result is wonderful, particularly the ensemble numbers.”

This year’s J-term musical also made liberal use of technology to augment the performances, from a visual digital representation of Seurat’s dotted painting and drawing style to a massive projection of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” before which the characters stood completing the scene, to the “Chromolume” animation created by Kyle Meredith ’19.

The “Chromolume,” an art piece by great-great-grandson George, combined the principles of color from Seurat’s work with modern technology and science about color theory — the animation, Christensen mentioned that Anderson said, was “alone worth the price of admission.”

Over a decade of producing impressive musicals in an even more impressive time span have made Douglas and Christensen spectacular curators of talented performers, evocative shows and community revelry. “Sunday in the Park” proved no different.

And their performers feel the same significance; as Koch noted, “Putting on a show of this caliber is a great feeling, and performing it in front of a sold-out house for every show is really spectacular.”

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