Roundabout Theatre Company’s stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Sunday in the Park with George” beautifully illuminates the struggle and sacrifice inherent in the creative process. Directed by Sam Buntrock, the emotionally charged show arrives on Broadway by way of London, where Buntrock originated his innovative new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005. The sold out run transferred to the West End winning five Olivier Awards (London’s equivalent of the Tony) before coming to New York with the two leads, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, reprising their award winning performances.
“Art isn’t easy,” goes the lyric of a Sondheim song, but Mr. Buntrock passionately demonstrates the art of “Putting It Together” in a carefully thought out re-staging that integrates the musical, visual, and emotional aspects of the show while maintaining the organic nature of the work and its themes. The result is a tremendous theatrical achievement.
Making use of computer generated special effects to connect all the dots, “order, design, composition, balance, light, and harmony,” the story is told on a grand scale yet maintains an intimate feel because of the precisely nuanced work of the entire team of actors and designers. The big ideas are enriched by the technology especially when juxtaposed with the many small moments in the complex tale, giving the evening a haunting resonance of self exposure. Indeed, Mr. Sondheim has said once he got a chance to step back from the piece he recognized a bit of himself in the Seurat character.
The universally acclaimed Sondheim musical has a book by James Lapine that was inspired by the 19th century French painter George Seurat (Daniel Evans), who died at the age of 31 having never sold a work of art. The first act details Seurat’s personal struggles, while creating his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” The act emphasizes the conflict between Seurat and his muse Dot (Jenna Russell), an ultimate feminist, who will leave the artist even though she is deeply in love with him and pregnant with his child. Seurat in his self absorption will let her go.
While the performances of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in James Lapine’s 1984 original production remain memorable, the handsome new staging has a fresh take that is further enhanced by the exceptional leads. Daniel Evans is intensely moving as the detached Seurat giving him a rueful self awareness, which makes his torment even more painful to witness. Jenna Russell, although lacking Ms. Peters’s seductive purity, brings a bitter sweet wisdom to her portrayal of Dot that makes her rendition of the final song “Move On” all the more poignant. The two have beautiful well trained voices that are well suited to interpret the Sondheim score and they are a rarity, vocalists who can really act. The exquisite combination is musically compelling and emotionally fulfilling.
With the opening Sondheim chord a charcoal stroke made by Timothy Bird’s CGI projections is marked across designer David Farley’s ingenious white box setting. And then more strokes as if the painter were making them himself. The sketched painting will be inhabited by live actors and come to life in real time as Seurat works feverishly on his ground breaking impressionist masterpiece. The scenes with him painting in the park while interacting with his subjects are alternated with intimate scenes with Dot in his studio until the painting is complete. This new digital design elements mixed with the tradition style is exhilarating to witness.
Buntrock has a background in animation giving him an excellent handle on the experimental technology .He weaves it into the narrative with grace, style, and whimsy that complement the story without being just a visual element.
The second act jumps 100 years ahead to demonstrate the lasting power of art, where the artist’s great grandson will struggle with similar issues. Although tightened and strengthened, the act is somewhat repetitive, but the Sondheim score with fluid rhythms and lush surging harmonies is never less than ravishing.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“Sunday in the Park with George” opened at Studio 54 on February 21, 2008. Tickets are available by calling 212-719-1300, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.roundaboutheatre.org" www.roundaboutheatre.org or at the box office.