New York: Sunday in the Park with George

On my way to New York I was listening to an interview with Edward Albee, who said that whenever a person goes to the theatre, she should treat it as if it is the first time she has ever seen a play. I thought that was excellent advice for a reviewer, and made it my goal to keep that in mind when I saw Sunday in the Park with George on Saturday (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine). Fortunately this production, smartly directed by Sam Buntrock, is so magical that it truly feels like nothing you’ve ever encountered before.

The musical is superficially about Georges Seurat and how he painted his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Under the surface, the musical is about the creation of all art, the discovery of beauty, and how we all find meaning in our lives.

The set is large white walls, gallery-like, in extreme perspective. The kind of perspective found in set designs when Inigo Jones first brought the proscenium stage to England. The skewed perspective reminds us, as the play brings up later, that Seurat was known for toying with perspective. I looked at those large empty walls and thought, “I get it. The set is a blank canvas.” Except I had no idea how literally true that thought was.

Daniel Evans walks out onstage as Georges Seurat. He addresses the audience. “White. A blank page or canvas.” With these words the already white walls of the set are lit up, becoming an even brighter white. “The challenge: to bring order to the whole.” Then, with the first notes played by the orchestra, a graphite line is drawn across the back wall. “Through design.” More lines and a shore appears. “Composition. Balance. Light.” A pencil black-and-white drawing of a park, lake, trees has formed across the entire set. “And harmony.” The orchestra enters the opening number, and the drawing on the set is filled with color. Before a single note has been sung, this production has earned applause from the audience. The opening 45 seconds of this musical is one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in a theatre.

Sunday in the Park with George focuses the first act on Seurat and the characters that inhabit his painting. Most prominent is his lover, the appropriately named Dot (Jenna Russell). Their love for each other is clear, yet Georges’ all encompassing focus on his work drives the pregnant Dot to marry Louis, a baker. Russell’s Dot is, despite the constraints of her education and situation, charming and full of life. Russell’s performance is a veritable master class in how to act a song. Like all good actors do in their dialogue, Russell fills her songs with variety and dramatic choice in pitch, tone, emotion, and delivery.

In Act Two Russell plays Dot and Georges’ daughter Marie at 98, and Evans plays her grandson, an artist also named George. Evans shines in this act as an artist who has lost his way, unsure of how and what to create next. His physicality is tight and withdrawn in the first act. In the second this gives way to a modern stance, with hands resting in the back pockets of his skinny jeans. As the modern George, Evans walks the stage bursting with artistic desire. When he finds his inspiration and drive, he is like a kid in a candy store – his face radiates pure joy.

This musical is not so much about plot, but an exploration of the difficulty of being an artist. You live to understand and explore humanity, and yet you are constantly failing at human connection. Your art is the connection that you are incapable of achieving in your real life. “Art isn’t easy. Trying to make connections.” You see the world in ways that no one else sees it, and at the same time you cannot find the world that everyone else sees. Artists become self-involved in their attempt to create art, not realizing that others create art not through painting or sculpting, but through their life itself. As Marie says, “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world. Children and art.”

The musical comes full circle when George travels to Paris in hopes of finding an answer from his possible connection with Seurat. He stands on the island of La Grande Jatte and searches for the beauty that Seurat found. He reads the old grammar book in which Dot wrote notes. Through her words he meets Dot, and inspiration at the same time. He learns the manifesto that Seurat declared to the audience at the beginning of the evening. The colors of the park disappears. The lines are slowly erased. The set becomes as bare as it was in the beginning, as George reads from Dot’s book, “A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities..."

This revival fully realizes the brilliance of Sondheim and Lapine’s work. It is a perfect production. By perfect, I don’t mean to say nothing is ever wrong. After all, I have no way of knowing if a line is ever flubbed, a note missed, or an emotion strained. What I mean is every production element, from sets to lights to costumes to manner of performance, illuminates and supports the script and its purpose. You can truly appreciate the way that Sondheim’s lyrics interconnect and the many levels on which they work. (The only other play I’ve seen that I would refer to as perfect in this manner was Doug Wright’s I am My Own Wife, directed by Moises Kaufman and starring Jefferson Mays.

The production team and cast understand that Sondheim’s musical is created in the same way Seurat’s painting was. I’ve read complaints about the size of the orchestra, but it did not bother me. I love large orchestras as much as the next person, but the small one here truly works with the piece. It’s as if each instrument, each note, each voice is one of those dots on Seurat’s canvas. Likewise is the fantastic costume (David Farley) and light design. You can even see the flicks of color and light in Dot’s hat and parasol. Ken Billington’s light design wonderfully echoes Seurat’s pointillism.

There is a large supporting cast filling the stage. I am unable to pick out one or two actors as excellent, but that is the point. The characters are broadly drawn by the script and by the actors, but on purpose. Each character is a color, a stroke, filling the canvas of this musical. Individually they are ordinary, even ugly. But there is a transformation as they come together and sing the score’s most beautiful song, “Sunday.” These disparate, these mundane, these sometimes obnoxious elements have fused and have been turned, by Seurat, by Sondheim, and by Buntrock, into art.

5 stars
Through June 29th


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