The most notable aspect of the recent Chinese New Year Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall was the 3D animation projected on the world’s largest LCD screen. The most pleasurable moments in the strange new musical, “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, the Friend of Dr. Rushower),” see page 30, are the animated cartoon drawings/settings by its designer/librettist Ben Katchor. Also committed to a trend of these increasingly popular design elements is “Sunday in the Park with George,” the Roundabout Theater Company presentation originally produced in London (winner of an Olivier Award) by the Menier Chocolate Factory.
It isn’t that Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous score need worry that it is playing second fiddle to the minimalist set design by David Farley (who also designed the costumes) or the stunning projection designs by Timothy Bird & the Knifedge Creative Network, although they assume a major role. The images projected onto a blank background, enhanced by Ken Billington’s brilliantly conceived lighting, appear to be so closely aligned with the theme of this musical (“Art, putting it together piece by piece”) that they help to bring a renewed appreciation for this 24-year-old musical.
For those of us who cherish the memory of the original Pulitzer Prize-winning production that starred the luminous Bernadette Peters and libidinous Mandy Patinkin, audiences will be amply rewarded by the excellence of the current stars and by this exciting, newly envisioned staging by Sam Buntrock. Buntrock, who has numerous directorial credits at the Menier as well as the Donmar Warehouse, also has a background in animation. This serves him well as he tackles Sondheim’s intricately constructed score and the subtleties in the satirical book by James Lapine. He also has motivated the supporting cast to be as vitally dimensional and real in their business as are the two leads, marvelously played by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell.
More closely aligned to the romantic sentiments of “A Little Night Music” than to the more bombastic dynamics of “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday” is a hauntingly beautiful collage of many textures. Inspired by the French 19th century post impressionist George Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Sondheim uses this pointillist masterpiece to serve his own canvas as a work of musical expressionism.
Evans defines Seurat as an exasperating, grievously self-absorbed artist who spent approximately two years of Sundays watching the working classes mingle with fashionable society. His conflicted and bittersweet relationship with Dot, his beautiful mistress-model, isn’t one however, that makes him terribly likable. Russell, who is making an auspicious Broadway debut, plays Dot with a zest that is extremely refreshing. Then there is the meticulous recreation of the famous painting itself, which breathtakingly becomes the now famous tableau vivant in a way that is approached quite differently from the original staging, but equally effective.
With a jump into the present, Act II reunites the same cast, as different characters, at an American art museum. It is here where George, an artist and the great grandson of Seurat, is about to unveil his newest gargantuan piece of laser-beam sculpture before critics and friends. The light show that is the essence of George’s latest work is called Chromolume #7, and it is quite a dazzler.
For all its scaled-down considerations, this eye-filling production remains a treat to the emotions as well as to the intellect. Through the use of projections and animated drawings, we see the 20th century George simultaneously holding conversations, working the room as it were, in different places at the same time, a wonderful and funny concept.
But it remains for Sondheim’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics and the rush of melodic scoring to spark the idiosyncrasies, foibles, mannerisms, and eternally critical fraternities of both Paris, 1884, and America, 1984.
It is the sheer cleverness of Sondheim to link the two centuries together through the eyes of the artists observing them. This is what makes this musical such a grand and thought-provoking experience: that all artists’ creations are not only inevitably unique, but that each also validates the truth, as they see it. Under Buntrock’s guidance, Act I has a gentle impressionistic flow while a brisk staccato tempo gives a different pulse to Act II.
In the light of this extraordinarily moving production, there is no point (unless it is pointillist) in comparing this to the original. Evans is entirely credible and sings beautifully as the bearded Seurat, and as his own great grandson, who also struggles to be unique. There is a wonderful vigor in Evans’ performance, especially as 20th century George, who eventually begins to see himself as a vital part of the bridge that connects artists of all generations.
Russell sings exceptionally well and with a delightful fervor as Dot, Seurat’s lover who leaves for America, pregnant with his child; and later as Marie, the child born in America, the grandmother of 20th century George and keeper of the flame.
In support, Michael Cumpsty is appropriately smug and condescending as George’s artist friend. Among the fine cast, all of whom play more than one role, Mary Beth Peil stands out for her feisty performance as George’s elderly and bossy mother. Who could ask any more of a musical than that it reflect “order, design, composition, light, and harmony,” all the qualities that Seurat strived with vigilance to incorporate into his art? This one happily achieves that goal. HHH
“Sunday in the Park with George,” limited engagement, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $36.25 to $121.25. 212-719-1300.