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A COLD DAY IN THE PARK WITH SEURAT; A WARM DAY WITH GEORGE/SONDHEIM

 

picture - Sunday in the Park with GeorgeTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published February 29, 2008

 

Sunday in the Park with George

now playing on Broadway at Studio 54

through June 15

 

The most unexpected thing about Sam Buntrock’s mind-expanding revival of “Sunday in the Park With George” is that he dares to cast a light, laser-bright, on Stephen Sondheim’s methodology. Throw away every notion you ever had based on its original production, and you can start with the new logo. The printed “Sunday in the Park” seems to be the work’s logo.  The way “With George” appears underneath that logo, in a more casual hand-written style, suggests that this might be another piece altogether. And of course it is and always has been.

 

In the original production, the first act seemed a perfect evening in the theater by itself, consummately constructed and so fully satisfying  that one could have gone home without feeling a need for a second act. It takes a masterpiece of art, never fully appreciated in its creator’s brief lifetime – “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat – and watches as it is put together, dot by pointillist dot, to its triumphant fruition. The audience, in a sense, participates in the creative process along with its artist, and Stephen Sondheim’s score, all fits and starts, with melodies overlapping and connecting, seems to be the musical counterpart to Seurat’s unusual painterly technique. He doesn’t merely imagine what that technique is; he thrusts himself into it. And, by extension, it seems to transform Seurat into Sondheim, so that it often seems that the intention of James Lapine’s book is to force Sondheim into making a highly personal statement about his own life as an artist. Which, of course, is what it turned out to be. Or at least what it seemed to be. All the heart and passion was focused, with dogged intensity, on that act.

 

Imagine, then, this time around, during intermission, feeling that you are watching an elegant, crisp, and somewhat restrained revival. Did I say “ somewhat restrained”? At times, it feels downright cold to the touch. Personal though it may be, Sondheim comes across seeming like a bit of an artistic martinet, someone who knows a lot about the rigors of art but almost nothing about the passion of art. As the painting comes to life, the blood behind the brush vanishes. Georges has left behind all human connection. All that finally exists is the painting itself. And, magnificent as that work of art is, it begs the question: Is it enough? Even his critics seem pure in their cynicism; when they sing “No Life,” we almost embrace their snobbery rather than laugh at their pompousness.

 

This is the first bold, even daring, directorial stroke of the evening: taking a chance that the coldness will eventually work in its favor. Even among the most devotedly addictive admirers of Sondheim, there have always been those who consider this his most distastefully self-conscious work, an opinion based on the fact that the second act, sketchy and pretentious and self-congratulatory, doesn’t even begin to fulfill the promise of the first. If we are left feeling cold when the first-act curtain comes down, what is there to look forward to? Therein lies the surprise, the shock, and the thrill that we encounter as we experience what Mr. Buntrock has managed to do to upend our expectations.

 

The George of the second act, distantly related to Georges – his grandmother being the love-child of the union between Seurat and his model, the somewhat facetiously named Dot – is an installation artist in a kind of mid-career crisis, caught between the trendily insular art world that has embraced his “chromolumes” (and is just as quick to reject them at the drop of a miscue) and his own as yet inchoate need to discover something still unexplored within himself. Since he is trapped in the superficial and fleeting milieu of this world, a victim of his own success as it were, he doesn’t seem to know how to escape or if he even wants to. But, through – aha! –human connection (his grandmother, of course), and then the unearthly appearance of Dot, who is really his grandmother’s mother, the youthful woman in profile in the foreground of Seurat’s painting, he begins to see a way through to some new form awaiting him. He sees the light.

 

It is clear now that Sondheim is not Georges; he is George, hesitant at the edge of some precipice but clearly ready to plunge into the unknown. And we know now what we didn’t know when we first saw the original production: he would go on to create one of his most extraordinarily powerful and affecting works, “Passion.” It is hard to say just exactly how Buntrock has managed to put this musical in such perfectly balanced perspective. It may be enough that he has done so.

 

This may be a minority view, but it isn’t the projection design of Timothy Bird that does it, because it creates more trickery than magic. There is some delightful animation of the dog in the painting in the first act. And the illusion of Seurat actually inside his own painting, while in the act of creation, is splendid. And there is an eye-popping moment when the “painting” recedes into a wall of a museum, at the climax of the evening’s most brilliant set piece, “It’s Hot Up Here,” in the second act, that is fairly stunning. But, in general, it washes over rather than clarifies the details of the painting, and, when used outside the painting, it merely distracts.

 

The success comes from the performers, largely. Daniel Evans’s Georges is so very different from his George that we never juxtapose one upon the other, and we never confuse one with the other, and, while we admire the stiffness of Georges, we are more attracted to the looseness of George. Jenna Russell is, quite simply, wonderful. She brings humor and warmth to both Dot, the mistress, and Marie, the grandmother; her singing of the title song has an astringency that feels cleansing, and in that new, more glorious second act, she transforms “Children and Art” into pure gold, and, together with Evans, gives “Move On,” arguably one of the most beautiful songs in the entire Sondheim canon, its ripest flowering. They receive excellent support from Michael Cumpsty, Mary Beth Peil, Santino Fontana, Jessica Molaskey, and Alexander Gemignani. But one must praise the musicality of the entire cast.   

 

The real good news is that this “Sunday In The Park” seems less cold in retrospect. And “With George” turns out to be not a misconceived attachment but instead the heart of the evening.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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