Filichia Features: Sunday in the Park with Somerset County

Filichia Features: Sunday in the Park with Somerset County

By Peter Filichia on December 16, 2016

A high school production of Sunday in the Park with George?

Sounds crazy, no? But in the little village of Bridgewater, New Jersey, director Joe Mancuso proved that the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece can be done by students – and done superbly.

How did he do it? And how can you?

You must have the right kids, of course. Mancuso did, for the Dance and Theater Arts Department of Somerset County Vocational & Technical High School has a well-earned top-notch reputation. Here’s hoping you have a Georges Seurat as magnificent as Shayne Vasquez. He conveyed such feeling when speaking of Dot, his model and lover, and other women too: “They have never understood -- and no reason that they should.” He made us see that George didn’t love Dot less, but loved his art more.

Jackie Romankow sang gloriously throughout and, in the scene where she gives George his last chance, beautifully conveyed that he was the only man she’d ever really love. Loren Donnelly found the heart and soul of a mature woman when playing The Old Lady. And Chance Friedman as Soldier? I’m always impressed when a kid can start a song without benefit of the orchestra feeding him the note. The sounds that vocal coach and musical director Alison Mingle got out of the group on the stirring anthem “Sunday” were splendid, too.

Even if you have their equals, you’ll need late 19th century Parisian costumes that perfectly match the clothes worn by the people pictured in Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte – better known to us as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

For the musical has Seurat seeing, painting, arranging and rearranging the characters into the precise places that the painting has them. (Vasquez directed them with the assurance of Zach in A Chorus Line.) After this happens, a replica of the painting flies down and is superimposed in front of the cast.

The painting reappears in the second act, too, which is set nearly 100 years later. Marie, Seurat’s nonagenarian daughter, points out to a museum audience where her mother appeared in the painting. “There she is,” she says four times of four different women.

So Mancuso commissioned an enormous replica of A Sunday Afternoon which did arrive on time. But getting the unwieldy canvas on stage in expedient fashion during rehearsals turned out to be more difficult than anyone had imagined. “I had hoped it’d work,” said Mancuso, “but we have limited wing and fly space and the painting must make its entrance in time with the music.”

Of all things, the current off-Broadway show Othello: The Remix helped Mancuso in his dilemma. “While I was sitting there,” said Mancuso, “I saw that this Othello doesn’t have a Desdemona; she’s only represented as a disembodied voice. If Othello doesn’t need her, does Sunday need a painting?”

Mancuso decided to have the “painting” represented fourth-wall. Marie (whom Romanow startlingly aged) simply pointed outward. True, the coup de théâtre at the end of Act One was lost, but take it from this attendee, the audience oooohed when they saw the painting come to life solely by where the kids were positioned.

Sunday has what high school theater programs always appreciate: many roles. Nine girls and seven boys are required as Seurat’s subjects. But because Somerset has fifty students in the program, Mancuso found through auditions that twelve girls and ten boys were right for the show.

“So I made room for three extra couples: one middle-aged, one old-aged and a brother-and-sister combination,” he said. “Remember that on any given Sunday, Seurat sketched people whom he didn’t put into the painting.”

Of course, Mancuso didn’t change a word or shift any dialogue. “The kids, silent though they were, were asked to create characters, so they had a wonderful acting exercise.” The only “change” was that “Sunday” had six additional voices singing about the blue-purple-yellow-red water.

The replicated painting was relegated to the lobby. The Paper Mill Playhouse, which dispenses Rising Star Awards to Jersey theater programs, offers a prize for Outstanding Lobby Display; Somerset would seem to have the edge this year.

So don’t think you need a facsimile of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte to do a successful Sunday in the Park with George. Of course, if you are intent on using the painting, Mancuso says that you and he can surely work out some easy terms …

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at