It's not every production that gets a standing ovation before the actors even hit the stage. But such was the case on opening night of Mad Cow Theatre's production of "Sunday in the Park With George."
Of course, the applause wasn't as much for the show as for the public debut of Mad Cow's brand new home on Church Street. But the goodwill inspired by that auspicious occasion permeates this production, warming what could be in lesser hands a chilly concept — nothing less than the meaning of art.
The show, a Stephen Sondheim musical with book by James Lapine, also gets a boost of humanity from approachable leads Matt Horohoe, whose comic background serves him well here, and Hannah Laird, who pluckily gives the show its heart.
"Sunday in the Park With George" was specifically chosen to open Mad Cow's new space, and it's easy to see why. When Horohoe sings "Putting It Together," Sondheim's ode to all the wheeling and dealing it takes to finance art, it's not hard to think about the years of negotiations between the city, developers and Mad Cow to make the new theater a reality.
But it's just as easy to get lost in the glorious theatricality of this fine production — from the bustles and parasols sported by the ladies in Emily Smith's lavish costume design, to the gorgeous painted backdrops of Cindy White's scenic design.
Those backdrops stand out more than in other plays for this is a story about visual art. "Sunday in the Park With George" uses real-life painter Georges Seurat as a jumping-off point for its observations on the creative process. Seurat, a French painter who lived in the latter half of the 19th century, is best known for his work "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."
In this fictionalized account, George (Horohoe) is obsessed with his painting, neglecting his mistress Dot (Laird), who leaves him even though she is pregnant with his child. In the second act, the action fast-forwards a century to their great-grandson, also an artist named George, who has created a modern-day work of art that pays homage to the "Sunday Afternoon…" painting.
The show throws around a lot of statements that pertain to both visual and performing artists: "Artists are bizarre," the audience is told. "Artists are crazy." Artists don't create for our approval, artists need to set their sights on something new. Director Tim Williams' production subtly but firmly underscores the notion that to reflect our world, artists need to create their own world.
The performers in the cast of 14 are mostly actors first, singers second, but that works fine with Sondheim's typically quirky score. Good news for future Mad Cow musicals: The sound balance between the singing and the live accompaniment was impeccable.
The show's biggest flaw is its lopsided nature — the characters of the slow-starting, longer first act are far more engaging than those of the second act, which limps to a close. Ultimately, "Sunday In the Park With George" is beautiful, frustrating, thought-provoking, maddening, inspiring and laughter-inducing. In other words, it's a work of art.
'Sunday in the Park With George'
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical
• Length: 2:35, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and two Mondays, Oct. 15 and 22; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 28
• Tickets: $23-$32; $15 on Mondays
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: Madcowtheatre.org