Stephen Sondheim’s incandescent 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George inspires like a great work of art. You never tire of looking at it and you see new things, feel new things every time you take it in.
This current viewing is courtesy of Signature Theatre and director Matthew Gardiner, who takes what is considered a cool-toned and cerebral show and imbues it with astonishing warmth, quickness and light.
In his hands and assisted by a superlative cast, Sunday pays loving tribute to the process of creation—not only a masterpiece painting, but a child, a new life, the reinvention of self.
The play centers on George Seurat’s feverish making of “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and the artist’s sacrifices to bring such a work into the world. Seurat developed the painting technique pointillisme, in which small dots and brush strokes blend together when seen from a distance. The effect is shimmering, ever-changing—as if Seurat captured the nature of color and light on canvas.
The first act takes place in the late 1880s, as George (Claybourne Elder) works on the painting while his model and lover Dot (Brynn O’Malley) poses, fusses and tries to concentrate—which unfolds in the luminous, tone-setting opening song “Sunday in the Park with George” and the frenzied rhythms of George’s explanation of the artistic process, “Color and Light.”
It appears Seurat has no trouble connecting the light-filled dots for his masterpiece. His problem is connecting with people, most notably Dot—a radiant creature with a Renoir complexion and the clear-eyed joyfulness of the subject of a Mary Cassatt portrait who basks in her lover’s gaze, but who longs to be truly seen. One of Gardiner’s agile flourishes shows Dot and George at opposite ends of his atelier (Daniel Conway fashions a studio with an attic skylight that is pure Parisian romance), their gestures mirroring each other as she sits powdering at her dressing table and he stipples paint onto the canvas.
When George neglects to take her to the Follies because he needs to complete a segment of the canvas (“Finishing the Hat,” a tender and rueful explanation of an artist’s isolation and obsession), Dot realizes that her destiny may lie elsewhere (as seen in the charmed patter and intricate rhymes of “Everybody Loves Louis” and the raw, frustrated passion of “We Do Not Belong Together.”)
Dot needs to hear the words “I love you” and it is wrenching when Elder’s Georges says that he simply cannot speak the words she so longs to hear. He is a bit incredulous, since his love for her is spread all over the canvas for “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Not to mention that he is breaking new ground with his dots of pure color and light.
He treats the world as fodder for the canvas. Even his mother (the towering Donna Migliaccio) keeps a stately distance and only converses with her son as he hunches over a sketch pad. Yet another striking aspect of this production is its balance.
The secondary roles, the background figures in the painting, are vivid and rich. Maria Engler brings humor and wistfulness to the role of the dutiful nurse and a cheerfully vulgar “ugly American” on holiday with her indulgent hubby (Dan Manning). Migliaccio is commanding and sharp as George’s mother, willfully mired in the past and her song “Beautiful” is a high point. You usually don’t have much sympathy for the snooty wife of fellow artist Jules (Mitchell Hébert, in gentlemanly pique) but Valerie Leonard gives the role a touching vulnerability and class.
No production of Sunday in the Park with George would be complete without the creation of the famous painting at the end of Act 1, as the cast hypnotically walks into place and the backdrops descend. Just try not to break out in shivers as Sondheim’s audacious, haunting score swells and Conway, lighting designer Jennifer Schriever (whose painterly light is sublime throughout) and costume designer Frank Labovitz pull of the gorgeous illusion of actually being inside a beautiful, important painting.
The second act is set nearly 100 years later in New York, with Georges and Dot long gone, leaving only the magnificent painting and the child they made together, the elderly Marie (O’Malley).
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Closes Sept 21, 2014
4200 Campbell Ave
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $29 – $109
Tuesday thru Sunday
Dot and Marie is played with delicacy and quicksilver spirit by Ms. O’Malley. She seems to embody lightness, like a painting made flesh. Her voice is strong and nimble in the first act, but there is something devastating and deep about her performance in the second act, where she sings “Children and Art” with trembling fire as she points out her mother “There she is/there she is/there she is”– revealing that Dot did indeed eventually see the love splashed all over the canvas and passed that love of art and family onto her child. And the reunion with her great-grandson (“Move On”) takes on a ghostly grandeur.
Signature and Gardiner make a pure case for both love and art in Sunday in the Park with George.
Sunday in the Park with George . Book by James Lapine . Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Directed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Claybourne Elder, Brynn O’Malley, Evan Casey, Susan Derry, Erin Driscoll, Maria Egler, Mitchell Hébert, Valerie Leonard, Joseph Mace, Gregory Maheu, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Paul Scanlan, Sadie Rose Herman and Lucy Alexa Herman. Musical Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch; Scenic Design by Dan Conway; Costume Design by Frank Labovitz; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Lane Elms; Video Design by Robbie Hayes; Wig Design by Samantha Birchett-Hunter; Production Stage Manager Kerry Epstein. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.