Friday, February 22, 2008

Sunday In The Park With George (The SOB Review)

Sunday In The Park With George (The SOB Review) – Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York, NY

***1/2 (out of ****)

Art isn't easy.

But in the hands of director Sam Buntrock, an exquisite theatrical masterpiece literally comes to life, bit by dazzling bit, in the stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday In The Park With George.

In the first Broadway revival of this classic, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 -- a less than optimum venue for the production, which I'll get into another time -- Buntrock's ingenious staging begins with a blank canvas, courtesy of David Farley's colorless set design, effectively awash in white lighting by Ken Billington.

But before long, the canvas takes on a life of its own, and it isn't simply because all of its inhabitants (played by a stellar cast) are suddenly abounding with vitality. Here, every minor detail is a major decision.

When Buntrock first staged this show in 2006 at London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, necessity really became the show's mother of invention. Strapped for cash, Buntrock turned to Tim Bird and The Knifedge Creative Network to fill in the blanks with an enthralling, radiant projection design that is unequivocally the true star of this musical, making it a gorgeous work of art worthy of a great master.

And speaking of such a master, Sunday In The Park With George is, of course, a fictionalized account of the painstaking, lonely artistic process undertaken by neo-impressionist Georges-Pierre Seurat in creating his pointillistic painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte." While the photo above doesn't do it justice, Seurat relied on the right light to blend different colors together, placing perhaps little hues of blue among slight dabs of red to make it appear violet from afar.

The fictionalized aspects of this musical focus on George's interaction, or lack thereof, with each of the subjects in the painting. Daniel Evans imbues his George with all the manic, single-minded discipline one would expect from a dedicated artist, whether it's his accentuated devotion to "Color And Light":

Red red red red
Red red orange
Red red orange
Orange pick up blue
Pick up red
Pick up orange
From the blue-green blue-green
Blue-green circle
On the violet diagonal
or his becoming so absorbed in the world he's creating that he prefers it to the real thing -- a place that includes his long-neglected mother (Mary Beth Peil) and Dot, played by an astounding Jenna Russell in an impish, yet heartbreaking performance as George's simple-minded and attention-starved muse.

The artist seemingly remains unmoved, even after learning that he's fathered Marie, a child bound for America. In fact, the moment that moved me the most was watching the clammy white, luminescent Piel sitting stoically in a haunting display of dignified sorrow as her son steals away her chance to know her only grandchild -- ironic given the incredibly enduring relationship between the George of Act Two and his own Grandmother Marie, who was the same baby that had been stolen away to America.

The first act climaxes with the entire production's pièce de résistance, an apex in which George puts it all together in a brilliant and touching finish as the actors recreate the famous work of art.

It may sound like I'm quibbling here, but the show's second act doesn't quite, well, connect. While still engrossing, it doesn't quite provide the intense kind of emotional tug I'd expected as Marie's grandson George faces many of the same challenges as his supposed great grandfather. Yet it's during this act that Sondheim's memorable score wins the day and eventually helps elevate it to a glorious conclusion.

As noted at the beginning of the year, Sunday In The Park With George was one of the top five stage productions I most eagerly anticipated for 2008. While I missed it in London, it was certainly well worth the wait to finally see what is unmistakably a great piece of art.

Sunday In The Park With George is scheduled to run at Studio 54 through June 1.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Sunday Opens Thursday Night (February 21, 2008)
Show Deals: Breaking The Code (February 10, 2008)
Looking Forward: The SOB Top Five (January 2, 2008)
Sunday In The Park With Daniel And Jenna (May 7, 2007)
"Sunday" In Studio 54 With Roundabout (February 23, 2007)
Is It Just Me, Or...(Part II) (February 21, 2007)
Sunday At The Grosvenor House With Laurence (February 19, 2007)
Which British Hits Will Be Broadway-Bound? (September 20, 2006)
Sunday in the Park With George Revival Opens in London's West End (May 23, 2006)

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At 22 February, 2008, Blogger Aaron Riccio said...

Nice review. Loved the music, loved the visuals, worried about the second act. I don't think you'll find many people who disagree. I saw this shortly after seeing "The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island," and I'm just happy to see technology being used well to convey a sense of atmosphere that matches the tenor of the song. And I'm always thrilled to see Sondheim taken so seriously. Now if they'd just bring back my favorite work of his, "Merrily," I'd be happy.

At 22 February, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Aaron - appreciate the kind words.

And I'm totally with you on Merrily We Roll Along and Sondheim in general (although I profess that my favorite Sondheim show is Assassins). Merrily's revival appears now to be only a matter of time, doesn't it?

As for technology, I haven't been this mesmerized since seeing The Last Five Years. While I didn't see the Off-Broadway production, I caught the show in Philadelphia with Wayne Wilcox and Nicole Van Giesen. It employed a ravishing and completely captivating projection design that had me excited about its future potential in theatre.

Well, that was, ironically enough, five years ago and I was beginning to think -- until Sunday -- that it was just a fluke. Buntrock & Co. prove it's a truly vital addition to live theatre.


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