Stacie Morgain Lewis
Anne L. Nathan
Mary Beth Peil
The greatest moments, Sunday in the Park with George proposes, are those charged with the possibility of creation.
A blank canvas is the pinnacle for the character of Georges-Pierre Seurat, his name shortened here to George for purposes of dramatic clarity and continuity. A bright white stage is fittingly how the musical begins and ends, and what comes between in this Pulitzer Prize-winner by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine contains more than its fair share of emotional highs and lows, each of them fueled by the desire for new things – particularly children and art.
The first act, which takes places from 1884 to 1886, is set during a series of Sundays on the suburban Parisian Island of La Grand Jatte, the setting of pointillist painter Seurat’s most ambitious painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. George is a floundering artist grappling with the tension between his art and his lover, Dot. Separating his inner life from a life with her is nowhere near as easy as he would like. George’s aloofness is too much for Dot. Instead of interacting with her, he observes the regular visitors to the park obsessively in his search for creation. She soon finds herself pregnant with George’s child and takes on a new, more stable lover in the form of Louis the baker in order to provide properly for her child. George’s “mission” – his painting – is as important as hers, she insists. For Dot, it’s even worth sailing across the ocean with Louis to new horizons in America.
If tackling creation as an artistic concept isn’t complicated enough, adding the conception of children into the mix makes for an even kickier cocktail. Add grandchildren and stir, and you’ve got a whole different monster. The second act takes place in 1984. George and Dot’s daughter Marie is now grandmother to a new George, a visual artist whose latest light and video installation, which he calls a “chromolume” – his seventh – is premiering at an American art museum, an event at which George and his grandmother Dot are the emcees. George’s ex-wife Elaine is there as a companion to Marie, with whom she has remained close. Childless, this twentieth century George struggles not only with the schmoozy, boozy world of art commissions but with his own progenitorial legacy.
As the nineteeth- and twentieth-century Georges Daniel Evans is perfectly cast. He has just the right manic energy for the role of tortured artist, his dappled brush strokes full of vigor and obsession that give way to an effortless affability in the second act. But his costar, Jenna Russell, who plays Dot in the first act and Marie in the second, is truly the anchor of the production, boasting a musical theatre gravitas that only luminaries the likes of her predecessors in these roles, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman, possess. She is truly in brilliant company. When Russell makes the switch from gamine to granny, it’s totally believable. And her request as Marie for George’s ex-wife to fix her chair “so [she] can see Mama” within the Seurat painting in which she’s been immortalized is incredibly poignant.
This production of Sunday has made a hop across the pond not unlike Dot’s, and, by extension, Marie’s. The production is a transfer of that which began at the Menier Chocolate Factory on the London fringe and transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End. The signature of the production is its projected scenic elements, concocted by Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network, who put the latest technology to work in effectively recreating the world surrounding Seurat’s painting and its legacy, aided by set designer David Farley. When these intricate technological tricks make their first appearance, they receive entrance applause, a staple on Broadway for famous performers but uncommon in the case of scenic designs. The attention, however, isn’t undeserved. The seamless quality of the visual elements allows for the focus by and large to remain on the performers rather than on the entrance and exit of bulky pieces of wooden set.
Of course no review of Sunday in the Park with George would be complete without mention of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score. His intricate staccato harmonies mimic the visual rhythms of pointillist technique, giving way to lush moments of resolve at the ends of the acts, when the melody of “Sunday,” one of the musicals pivotal and most accessible songs is allowed to shine. Rather than using the original orchestrations by Michael Starobin, however, this production utilizes reduced orchestrations by Jason Carr and a pit consisting of merely five players. This limited sound severely hinders the impact of the musical score, and the decision to place all of the players in the stage left box (usually at Studio 54 they’re evenly split between the left and right boxes) makes for a strange audio balance for an audience.
Still, it’s difficult to spoil a production of such a richly textured work. Though James Lapine’s book occasionally suffers from a lack of focus, introducing too many characters without ever integrating them fully into the world of these two intergenerational Georges, isolation and not connection is the key to understanding the foundation of the musical. It’s a blank canvas, not a finished piece of art, after all, that the audience is left to ponder as the lights go down.
As the Seurat character sings in a falsetto dog voice in the first act, days in the park are largely concerned not with extremes of life but with the “muddle in the middle,” and Lapine and Sondheim do their best not to go easy on their captive audience. Nineteenth-century George declares to Dot in the first act, “I am not hiding behind my painting – I am living in it.” His life is his work – no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Where the musical succeeds is not in wallowing in self-pity but in examining the fallout such isolation inflicts upon others. George and Dot of the first act may not belong together, but, as Yvonne, the wife of a critic of George’s work, tells Dot as she prepares to sail for foreign shores, despite all of the impediments, “You have to have a life!”