Points of View: “Sunday in the Park with George” (Review)

Signature Theatre offers a fresh, snazzy production of Sondheim's Seurat-inspired musical Sunday in the Park with George

The innovative but short-lived 19th century French painter George Seurat is, quite frankly, not the type of person you’d expect to inspire a Broadway musical.

But inspiration can strike in unexpected quarters, and for unexpected reasons. After the unexpected 1981 flop on Broadway of Merrily We Roll Along, venerated composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was seriously considering quitting writing for theater altogether. Eventually, he decided to find a new writing partner and explore a new subject, with a focus far from Broadway. With writer James Lapine, Sondheim settled on Seurat and Seurat’s most famous work, the pointillist neo-impressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which depicts dozens of people enjoying a leisurely day on the banks of the Seine.

"Suncay in the Park with George" cast Photo by Christopher Mueller

“Suncay in the Park with George” cast
Photo by Christopher Mueller

A largely fictional tale about the painting and some of the people in it, Sunday in the Park with George won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, and it’s no wonder. The musical’s fine arts focus is as fresh now as it was then, and Sondheim and Lapine address some contemporary — or maybe sadly, timeless — issues in the arts in general. Sunday… also covers a lot of ground. Act One is set in France as George obsesses over getting the finer points of the painting right, but not that of his relationship with Dot. Act Two is set in present-day America as Dot’s elderly daughter Marie is supporting her grandson, also named George, in his own fledgling art career as a digital sculptor.

Signature has once again tapped its sharp, resourceful associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner to helm the proceedings, and, as always, he’s trotted out some of Signature’s best in supporting roles — and given that the cast of characters is wholly distinct from Act One to Act Two, most pull double duty. The production’s leads, Signature newcomers Claybourne Elder and Brynn O’Malley, also do double duty, with Elder playing both Georges and O’Malley tackling Dot and Marie. O’Malley shows greater range and is particularly touching as Marie, but at a recent performance both actors struggled here and there to hit the right note. And given that neither Elder (Broadway’s Bonnie and Clyde and Road Show) nor O’Malley (Broadway revivals of Annie and Sunday in the Park with George) are yet box-office draws, it makes you wonder why Gardiner and crew didn’t promote a couple of the strong support players to lead, such as Paul Scanlan (who proved he could lead in Keegan Theatre’s Hair earlier this year) and Erin Driscoll (who played the title role in Violet at Ford’s Theatre earlier this yaer).

As ever, Signature recruits some of its core designers to keep things looking snazzy, though two newcomers seem to shine brightest: Robbie Hayes on projections during Act Two’s trippy “Chromolume #7″; and Jennifer Schriever, a Folger’s Theatre regular whose bang-up debut as lighting designer reaches its zenith at the end of Act One. That’s when the cast performs the touching song “Sunday” — as they slowly get into proper placement to bring to life Seurat’s painting. It takes George a while to get it just right, but when he does, Schriever’s lights hit just the right shade too, at the exact same moment. The subtle in-synch perfection of it is goosebump-inducing.

Sondheim has called Sunday… the show he feels closest to, with autobiographical undertones — at least as far as anyone can ascertain, given how tightly he keeps a wrap on his personal life and even his personal views. But clearly he identifies with the real-life Seurat, an iconoclast with many contemporaries who didn’t get him; with his character the painter George, an obsessive perfectionist who can be hard to take; and with his character Marie, who argues that humans are only remembered after death by the children and the art they leave behind.

Not only is Sunday… not one of Sondheim’s better known scores, much of it is intentionally minimal, practically un-hummable — Sondheim responding to what Seurat did in his painting, using his layered-dots painting technique called pointillism. So there is a lot of repetition, or only slight variations on themes, at times to the point of monotony — even repeated utterances of that very word, “monotony.” But if you find it getting tedious, stick with it: The repetition and variation pay off, as the songs and themes in Act Two — from “Putting It Together” to “Children and Art” to “Move On” — are stronger and stickier. You might even leave humming one or two.

Sunday in The Park with George (***1/2) runs to Sept. 21 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $100. Call 703-820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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