New York City Theater
"Sunday in the Park with George"
Studio 54, Manhattan
An extraordinary production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” has made its way to Broadway. Though under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre (which focuses on revivals), this can hardly be called a revival. It is a brand new approach, which employs such resources of modern technology as animation and projection to startling advantage. We see the most famous work of the neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat (“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”) evolve under our very eyes—moving from his sketches to color to the final masterpiece. Trees appear and disappear against the backdrop, or turn from charcoal gray to color. Characters appear on screen, interacting with the real characters, or move in and out of the painting.
British director Sam Buntrock brought this radical departure of “Sunday” to the stage, moving far afield from the original 1984 Broadway production. It is not so surprising that Buntrock (who has a background in animation as well as directing) would take this tack. The show proved highly successful at its 2005 opening at the Chocolate Factory (a small British venue), before moving on to the West End. The current Broadway premiere at Studio 54 features Buntrock’s original leads (Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell), who are joined by an American cast.
Technology notwithstanding, the story loses none of its emotional clout. The first act takes place on a series of Sundays (1884-1886), and plays out the conflict between love and art. “You don’t care about people!” cries Dot, Seurat’s mistress and model, while he, sketchbook in hand, focuses on the park scene. Is he emotionally incapable of connecting with her? In any event, he can speak only through his work. “Why do you insist upon hearing the words, when you know I can’t give you words,” he replies. Ultimately, Dot will weigh the decision to leave him, taking his newborn daughter, marrying Louis the baker, and moving to America. And Seurat’s guiding words will continue to be “order, design, tension, balance” and “harmony.”
Despite the backdrop of modern technology, Russell and Evans give such fine, touching performances that their story comes to life. They are supported by a flawless company (which includes Michael Cumpsty as a rival painter). The actors are top-notch, though, unfortunately, they often lose Sondheim’s distinctive lyrics, as they are delivered at rat-a-tat speed.
The second act, one hundred years later, is a sleek modern scene which focuses on another artist—the great-grandson of Seurat. He, too, struggles with artistic creation versus personal relations. Despite this connection with the past, the second act feels like a different play (which has always been the show’s problem)—another time, another story.
But these are minor criticisms in the overall evaluation of this Buntrock work. This new “Sunday in the Park with George” is a must-see, a memorable journey to a magical world. Get those tickets while the show still enjoys its limited run at Studio 54.
February 26, 2008