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WSU puts on a credible `Sunday in the Park'

When a theater troupe decides to mount a Stephen Sondheim musical, everyone from the cast to the costumers knows he's working without a net.

In shows such as "Assassins," "Into the Woods" and "Sunday in the Park With George," there are no blockbuster hit tunes to bail you out, no fast-paced plot to gloss over slack acting and no easy answers to life's tough questions at the end of the evening.When you do Sondheim, you're on your own.

And Wednesday night at the Peery Eqyptian Theatre in Ogden, the Weber State University department of performing arts gamely took on "Sunday in the Park With George."

The musical is one of Sondheim's "experiments." He has taken a classic impressionist painting and brought the figures in it to life. The artist, George Seurat, takes the lead, with his "pointillism" style showing up throughout the score as repeating staccato notes.

This isn't fluffy stuff.

And the fact the show was slated for just a three-night run shows that everyone knew what they were up against.

University theater productions are a training ground for budding talent and an opportunity for kids cobbling together a theater career to pad their resumes. That said, it doesn't follow that the shows are bad. They simply have bigger concerns than box-office receipts.

And given all the obstacles, this Jim Christian show hangs in there and scores points.

The leads are strong (though things fall off rather quickly after that) and a lot of effort has gone into mounting a visually strong production. (Filling the Egyptian stage with first-class art is a test, and Van Tinkham (scenery), Catherine Zublin (costumes) and Matt Goebel (lighting) give it their best shot, pulling off some very interesting effects.

As Seurat, J. Michael Bailey shows impressive range and intensity. His voice is strong, with a husky, pop-singer quality that now dominates Broadway in this Lloyd Webber era. As his love interest and foil, Cheri Pratt (as Dot) proves able to belt right back at him. One gets the feeling director Christian is counting on them to carry the day while everyone else does his level best to fill in.

Corey Atkins does do a nice turn as a snobbish critic, however, and Phaidra Donaldson brings some color to the guy's prissy wife, Yvonne.

As for the music, nobody's going to leave the theater whistling the songs (except maybe that old General Electric theme "Putting It Together"), but the orchestra - under Merle Marsh - plays everything with the confidence and verve of people who've been humming the things for years. Quality rehearsal time has to be a key.

In the end, anyone who drops by hoping to catch something akin to Donny Osmond's "Dreamcoat" will leave disappointed. Yet those who'd like to catch a little musical with meat on its bones; a musical that dares challenge you with more than three-chord progressions, this production of "Sunday in the Park With George" isn't a bad ticket.