By George Basler

Stephen Sondheim is a composer known for his intricate lyrics and rhyme schemes, and actor Matthew O’Ryan calls Sunday in the Park with George “quintessential Sondheim.”

“It is one of his more difficult roles to manage. But doing it is a labor of love. It’s a fantastic show,” said O’Ryan, who is playing the lead male role in the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players’ production of the prize-winning musical. It opens Friday (June 14) for a three-weekend run at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego.

The show, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine, was inspired by the French painter Georges Seurat’s masterwork “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” that was painted from 1884 to 1886.

“It’s mainly a show about connecting with art and your passions,” said Chris Vanderwerker, who is the music director for the Ti-Ahwaga production.

The plot revolves around two characters: George, a fictionalized version of Seurat as he labors to paint his masterwork, and his great grandson (also named George), who is a struggling contemporary artist living 100 years later. O’Ryan plays both roles.

The main female character is Dot/Marie, Seurat’s headstrong mistress and occasional model. Amanda Blake is playing her in the Ti-Ahwaga production. She was last seen at the Owego playhouse in a production of Cabaret earlier this year.

Sunday in the Park with George had a torturous production history, which was outlined by Lapine himself in his detailed 2021 book Putting It Together. But, in the end, the show won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the few Broadway musicals to win this award. The Pulitzer jury praised its exploration of “the costs and agonies of artistic creation.”

The show’s theme resonates with him on an artistic level, Vanderwerker said, noting both the Seurat character and the great-grandson are “struggling with relationships and their place in the world.”

One of the largest challenges in doing the show is the technical component, said Anna Rizzotti, who is directing the Ti-Ahwaga production. “My goal as a director is to bring Georges Seurat’s work to life on stage,” she emphasized.

Seurat used color and light in his paintings, and the Ti-Ahwaga production is working to recreate this on stage, Rizzotti said. This means playing with color and lighting and “working on different ways to light the stage,” she added.

 In “A Sunday Afternoon of the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Seurat combined countless dots of different colors to form a group of four dozen people enjoying the weather on the riverbank. Rizzotti  hand-painted thousands of dots on the stage set for the Ti-Ahwaga production to illustrate this technique.

 The production will feature a 14-person cast and nine-person live ensemble.

While Sunday in the Park with George may not be as familiar as some of Sondheim’s other musicals, it’s one of his best, said Vanderwerker, who describes himself as “a major, major Sondheim fan.”

“The music is gorgeous, and the story is beautiful,” he noted. O’Ryan voiced similar feelings. He was not that familiar with the musical before auditioning for it. Now he’s fallen in love with show.

 “It takes you on a journey,” Rizzotti said.

IF YOU GO: Ti-Ahwaga Community Players will present Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George June 14-30 at the Ti-Ahwaga Community Playhouse, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Tickets at $30 ($25 for students and ages 65 and over) are available at or by calling 607-687-2130.