Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 21, 2008
Sunday in the Park with George Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Sam Buntrock. Musical staging by Christopher Gattelli. Set & costume design by David Farley. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Sebastian Frost. Projection design by Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network. Orchestrations by Jason Carr. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Daniel Evans, Jenna Russell, Michael Cumpsty, Alexander Gemignani, Jessica Molaskey, with Mary Beth Peil, Ed Dixon, Santino Fontana, Kelsey Fowler, Jessica Grové, Alison Horowitz, Stacie Morgan Lewis, Drew McVety, Anne L. Nathan, Brynn O’Malley, David Turner, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Jeff Kready, Hayley Podschun, Andrew Varela.
Exactly the opposite is true about the revival of Sunday in the Park with George that the Roundabout Theatre Company is producing at Studio 54. Distance is the enemy in English director Sam Buntrock's production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize winner from 1984, transforming one of theatre's rare Impressionist musicals from a vivid dissection of the perils of the creative process into a stage full of disparate elements that never completely connect.
The problem with this production is not merely that it's housed in a theater some five times larger than its original London home, the Menier Chocolate Factory, but the emotional remove at which it constantly keeps you. Sondheim's most intensely personal musical feels here more like a forced museum field trip than an evening of enlightenment and entertainment, a trip through a shadowy gallery of Gorey-esque grotesques rather than a probing look into the mind of the committed artist.
Everything is cold: the setting (by David Farley, who also designed the costumes) of all-white, watch-your-step gallery; the performances, particularly from imported British leads Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell; and even the orchestra, pared down and spiritlessly weaving its way through Sondheim's potentially passionate score. Absent that heat, this musical is not guaranteed to leave you "sweating by a river," as a lyric goes, but fighting off the natural chill of the two men at its center who are so consumed with work that they have no time for the disbelievers surrounding them - however close.
It's hard to believe than Evans is, his general mien more resembling rubbernecking at a traffic accident than the "beam of light" another character observes. He's the model of "density without intensity," words his famous artist friend Jules uses to describe Seurat's "Bathing at Asnières," a rebel without a purpose. This makes the first act's usual showstopper "Finishing the Hat" an unsettling affair - you simply can't believe that Evans's Seurat has sacrificed all he claims.
His post-intermission George is even looser: a freewheeling, gay bohemian who might have stumbled in from the national tour of Rent, but not someone who consistently walks beneath the weight of his family tree and the economic necessity of commissions. He navigates the cocktail party following the release of his Seurat-inspired Chromolume #7 with such ease, it makes his neurotic musical explication of the schmoozing process, the scene-length "Putting it Together," superfluous.
Russell finds a more apt personality in Dot, one of willing frustration followed by unwilling disintegration, but is not appreciably warmer. Her portrayal is harsh nearly the point of shrewishness, making it quite clear why Seurat would rather stay home and paint, and her musical resignation of "We Do Not Belong Together" is a fiery final salvo, not a shattering goodbye. Her Marie, on the other hand, is quieter, funnier, and more sensitive - clearly a woman who learned from her grandmother's mistakes and is not willing to repeat them. Her "Children and Art," about the only things we really leave behind when we die, is touching in a way this thematic centerpiece too seldom is.
It is, however, the only time this Sunday engages your heart. The rest of the time, the tiny orchestra (five pieces, less than half the original complement, playing Jason Carr's threadbare new orchestrations) and a cast of strangely disinterested all-talents (led by Michael Cumpsty, Alexander Gemignani, Jessica Molaskey, and Mary Beth Peil) keep the proceedings as flat dramatically as they are scenically.
Buntrock's use of nonstop projections (courtesy of Timothy Bird and The Knifedge Creative Network) against the set's walls looks terrific as it moves from Seurat's earliest charcoal sketches through their pointillistic final forms and eventually George's computer-aided video imaging. But on their own, they do nothing to enhance Sondheim and Lapine's vision of the artistic life as a landscape forever in progress, stealing focus and sapping depth from a show intent on proving that every work of art (and its maker) has a more complex history than most of us realize.
That's especially true of Sondheim, in no small way the model for Seurat and George now in both his single-minded devotion and elusive popular success, whose gorgeous Act I finale remains one of his most superb creations. The song, building from the quiet close-up to the triumphant longer view, sumptuously follows Seurat as he at last combines the various pieces of his chaotic existence to bring "order to the whole" and assemble "La Grande Jatte" before our eyes.
But as boats flit by at warp speed, myriad strangers dissolve into view like a static-ridden TV channel resolving into a picture, and the orchestra gives its non-sweeping all, you're less moved than you should be: Technological innovation has never compared to the magic we ourselves create. Seurat blended the two in the late 1880s; Sondheim and Lapine managed it 100 years later. Buntrock and his company are several brushstrokes short.