Sunday in the Park with George
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 23, 2008
White. A blank page or canvas....So many possibilities.
The first act of Sunday in the Park with George concerns the creation of Georges Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The authors deal freely with the life and identity of the painter, whom they simply call George; no claim to any kind of accuracy is put forth by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in their lush and fanciful imagining of how the picture came together or, more importantly, who the people in it turn out to be.
Scenes alternate between this park in the Seine—where George sketches the disparate passersby who eventually will inhabit his painting—and George's studio, where he fills his enormous (10-foot wide) canvas with tiny dots. The governing principle of the painting is what we now call pointillism, here explained in the play by George to his friend/rival artist Jules:
GEORGE: What is that color?
GEORGE: See? Red and blue. Your eye made the violet....your eye is perceiving both red and blue and violet. Only eleven colors—no black—divided not mixed on the palette, mixed by the eye.
Jules doesn't understand what George is doing, but George doesn't care. "Why should I paint like you or anybody else?" he asks. "I am trying to get through to something new. Something that is my own."
In counterpoint with George's work, we meet his mistress Dot, who eventually abandons him because, as he himself admits, he cannot look up from his canvas; she is pregnant with their child but marries a baker, Louis, who takes her to America. We also meet many of the other people who are in the painting, and eavesdrop on the little dramas they play out on their Sunday afternoons in this park. None of these is ever resolved; but importantly the painting is resolved, and it is gorgeously re-created on stage in the tableau that ends Act One.
In Act Two, George's great-grandson, also named George, is an American artist/inventor who is unveiling his newest work, a tribute to Seurat's painting called "Chromolume #7." George's grandmother, Marie—Dot and George's child—is looking forward to journeying to Paris with George, to the island in the painting, where the Chromolume will receive a showing. George is seriously blocked in his work, and it is on this journey back to the island where he finds the inspiration he needs as the first George's muse, Dot, appears to him:
GEORGE: I want to make things that count,
Things that will be new....
What am I to do?
DOT: Move on.
The last thing I want to do is write a bad review of Sunday in the Park with George. I love this material: it is surely one of Stephen Sondheim's finest scores and, despite some second act problems, James Lapine's strongest libretto. Its themes of artists searching for connection and for new ground to break are resonant and beautiful. The original Broadway production in 1984, which I saw three times, remains one of my cherished theatre memories.
But while it is lovely to have this singular work on stage once again, it is disappointing to see it realized so carelessly. Instead of opening audiences up to the limitless obsessions of at least two artistic geniuses (Seurat and Sondheim), this production seems to me to be more about constraints.
Take, for example, David Farley's set, which is a white room, flanked by many tall doors. Surely a play about possibilities needs to happen on an open stage rather than within the confines of three overbearing walls! Farley's costumes are also unsatisfying—instead of using shimmering multi-colored fabrics that reflect Seurat's pointillist ideas, these are all uniformly dull and overly simple.
Director Sam Buntrock and a team of animators/video designers solve the "problem" of creating a painting on stage by projecting it on the walls of the set. But George, as he himself admits, is living in his painting: Buntrock's approach gives George's world only two dimensions instead of three. This flatness pervades the entire show.
Buntrock's staging de-emphasizes the various levels of connection and disconnection among the principals; George and Dot are not presented as equals (she speaks, pointedly, in a cockney accent, suggesting that she is not George's match, which is very problematic). Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot/Marie) display almost no chemistry together; and Evans's portrayal of George lacks depth, intelligence, and energy. Neither Evans nor Russell seems able to do full justice to the songs. The score is performed by a five-piece band, serviceable but hardly a substitute—particularly at a $121.25 top price—for a full orchestra. The play's natural humor and warmth is mostly drained off by Buntrock as well.
Roundabout's Sunday in the Park with George is only the latest entry in what feels like a cottage industry on Broadway lately: the reinvention of Sondheim's musical theatre canon. I wish that everyone involved with these shows would pay closer attention to the wisdom contained in this show, which urges us to be where we are and to move on to something new. Seurat's remarkable vision sits fixed forever in time on canvas, where we can discover and rediscover its magic over and over. Theatre, for better or worse, is ephemeral, and lives only in the memory. My memory of the original production of this show would have been better left undisturbed.
But for those coming to it for the first time, Sunday in the Park with George certainly has something to offer. Just know that this production, though in its fashion welcome, does not merit the extravagant claims that some have made for it; it is best described by these two adjectives: economical and serviceable.