"Connect, George, connect," preoccupied painter Georges Seurat reminds himself in "Sunday in the Park With George," while in "Company," perpetual bachelor Bobby longs for yet fears commitment as he sings, "Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep ... and make me aware of being alive."
Concurrent small-theater productions of these Stephen Sondheim musicals are providing a number of fascinating opportunities, including the chance to discover resonance in shows that represent high points in the 73-year-old lyricist-composer's career.
Sounds of the late '60s and early '70s are filtered through Sondheim-ian sophistication in "Company," a playful and often penetrating study of people's kinks and hang-ups.
At Knightsbridge Theatre, director-designer Dana Moran Williams returns to the show's original 1970 version, forgoing changes that Sondheim and script writer George Furth made in the mid-'90s.
The design is also retro, particularly the Space Age bachelor pad envisioned for Bobby, who is 35 and still single.
Women's sultry voices fill the air one night as Bobby (played with flirtatious charm by Beau Puckett at Saturday's opening) tosses in bed, followed by the insistent cries of his married friends. From then on, free-floating scenes find him contemplating commitment but picking up mixed signals from a couple (Don Schlossman and an intense Harmony Goodman) whose playful jibes escalate into a karate match and a bride (Janet Fontaine) who melts down on her wedding morning. (Many roles are double-cast, so the roster varies.)
The singing -- to accompaniment from two electric keyboards -- is strong, if only occasionally as sublime as Ilene Waterstone's quietly introspective rendition of the rueful "The Ladies Who Lunch."
As complex as "Company" is, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park With George," from 1984, is a much more audacious undertaking at West Coast Ensemble.
Sondheim's music evokes fin de siecle France while delivering staccato approximations of Seurat's pointillistic painting technique. It is staggeringly complex, as is the staging, which -- as laid out in James Lapine's script -- requires that the Seurat painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" be re-created as a tableau vivant.
Working with Tom Buderwitz (sets), Shon LeBlanc (costumes) and Elizabeth Stillwell (lights), West Coast Ensemble gets the technical elements remarkably right. The music, however, hadn't jelled by Friday's opening. Singers had trouble finding pitches, while the mini-orchestra -- six players that night, though sometimes there will be only five -- struggled toward cohesion.
A fictional account of Seurat's life, "Sunday" imagines the artist (Stef Tovar) dabbing away at his giant painting while his girlfriend (Dana Reynolds) waits for him to look up and notice her. It is a love story that doubles as a meditation on art's cost to those who create it. Under Calvin Remsberg's direction, it builds into a powerful evocation of art's transformative power.
Audiences have a rare chance to immerse themselves in such magic as these productions, along with "Anyone Can Whistle" at the Matrix, give Los Angeles its own little version of the Sondheim Celebration held last summer in Washington, D.C.
Where: Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, L.A.
When: Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.
Ends: May 4
Contact: (626) 440-0821
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
'Sunday in the Park With George'
Where: West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.
When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Ends: May 4
Contact: (323) 525-0022
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes