A drizzle of subtle color, a shimmer-curtain of sound - and we are transported back to "Sunday in the Park With George," the 1984 James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim musical, returning last night to the Roundabout Theater's Studio 54.
But this is "Sunday" in a very different park - for it has been projected by its London-born director Sam Buntrock into a completely brave new world of computer-generated imagery.
The results, built into the designs by David Farley and the lighting by Ken Billington, and based on pointillist Georges Seurat's iconic painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte," is one of the most visually amazing shows ever to reach Broadway.
So far as geek wizardry goes, Buntrock and his team of animators, led by Timothy Bird, have possibly reinvented the Broadway wheel.
The original "Sunday in the Park" was a kind of miracle - even if a broken-backed one. Despite its still feeble second act, it triumphs even more in this spectacular staging, originally created by Buntrock for the Menier Chocolate Factory, a famed fringe London theater.
"Sunday" is still far from your common musical. Its audacious theme is that of Seurat himself, and the struggle and sacrifice demanded by his art. As one of Sondheim's numbers puts it: "Art isn't easy."
Seurat's concern was demonstrating the inter-relationship between colors and light, and also in differently ordered perspectives of space. His art was pure distilled theater.
The musical's first part describes the painting of the picture in 1884. It also creates a fictional life for the painter himself (Daniel Evans) and his totally fictional mistress Dot (Jenna Russell), who, impregnated with George's child, emigrates to America with another lover, a friendly and tolerant baker.
So far, so good. Then almost total collapse.
The second act - set in 1984 - unfortunately finds George's great-grandson in the modish American art world, fighting for the patrons and subsidies to finance his own clearly pretentious style of visual art.
The story now drifts off into highfalutin fatuity. Admittedly, Sondheim comes up with two of his best numbers here, and after suggesting a Debussy/Ravel romantic sheen for 1884, now cleverly produces for 1984 the equally time-appropriate, if perhaps over-obvious, influences of composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Clever, but the act is also boring and pompous.
Evans and Russell - both brought over from Buntrock's West End cast - seem to have Tony Award written all over them. Evans' George nails the reserve and flame-like intensity of the loner artist, a creator personally short on relationships.
And it is a character perfectly, if abrasively, balanced by his model/mistress, Russell's eternal, feminine Dot, who like Evans gives a precisely nuanced, very funny and expressively sung musical portrait. Other splendid vignettes come from Michael Cumpsty and Alexander Gemignani.
Do go and see this unmissably innovative piece of musical staging - but don't blame me if, at the end, you feel you might have done better to leave at the intermission.
“Look!” says the man for whom seeing is everything, in a voice that both commands and beseeches. “Look!”
Skip to next paragraph This directive is issued by the painter Seurat, played by Daniel Evans in the glorious revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” which opened Thursday night at Studio 54. And even if George’s mother, to whom he is ostensibly speaking, pays him no mind, we certainly do.
How could we not look at the rhapsody of images that keeps unfolding before us? Directed by Sam Buntrock, this production uses 21st-century technology to convey the vision of a 19th-century Pointillist to truly enchanting effect.
But in “Sunday in the Park With George,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985, looking involves much more than registering what’s pretty, what’s shocking, what’s new. The great gift of this production, first staged in London two years ago, is its quiet insistence that looking is the art by which all people shape their lives.
As a consequence, a familiar show shimmers with a new humanity and clarity that make theatergoers see it with virgin eyes. And while “Sunday” remains a lopsided piece — pairing a near-perfect, self-contained first act with a lumpier, less assured second half — this production goes further than any I’ve seen in justifying the second act’s existence.
When “Sunday” moved to Broadway nearly 24 years ago after starting out at Playwrights Horizons, it felt bigger and splashier than it does this time, with outsize star performances from Mandy Patinkin (as Seurat) and Bernadette Peters (as his lover and model, Dot). I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and it will always be Mr. Patinkin’s and Ms. Peters’s voices I hear in my head when I recall the songs.
Sometimes, though, it’s easier to understand what a person is saying when he whispers into your ear instead of yelling at you from across a room. And Mr. Buntrock’s “Sunday,” which also stars a charming Jenna Russell as Dot, has the same intimacy it possessed when I saw an earlier version at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory in London in 2005. (It subsequently transferred to the West End and swept the top Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, in its category.)
As a portrait of the artist as an embattled and rejected man “Sunday” has been read as a sort of apologia pro vita sua by Mr. Sondheim. Like his Seurat, Mr. Sondheim has been criticized for being chillingly cerebral and remote, for having, as the show’s lyrics put it, “no life in his art.”
No one could level such objections at this “Sunday,” which celebrates both the bountiful chaos of life and the forms used to make sense of it. The musical’s two Georges — the Seurat of the first act and his descendant of the second act, an American sculptor in the booming 1980s — keep telling themselves to connect.
This means not only connecting the dots, as it were, that turn disparate sensations into art. It also means building the bridges that, however briefly, allow someone else to see as you do.
The Georges are as isolatingly obsessive as ever about their work. But Mr. Evans’s performance in both roles brings out the heat of empathy and exertion that comes from artists looking outside themselves (or inside themselves, to see outside). As his Seurat moves awkwardly and self-consciously among the conventional Parisians of the 1880s, he clearly lacks the traditional skills of social intercourse. But what’s especially evident in Mr. Evans’s performance, which suggests the angry longing of an autistic child to play nicely with others, is that he does connect to people through reimagining them in his painting.
That his art comes to immediate and fluid life lends the show a physical seamlessness — as if talent were a sixth sense — as well as a childlike wonder. The technical team here includes David Farley (set and costumes), Ken Billington (lighting) and Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network (projection design). While the 1984 production used three-dimensional cut-outs to replicate Seurat’s paintings, this one appears to draw those works — literally — into existence
This approach allows the audience to envision the world as the George of the first act sees it, with landscapes and people, projected on scrims and small canvases, that alter as he sketches them on the island of La Grande Jatte, the scene of his most famous painting. (The animated dogs, in particular, are delightful.)
Perspectives and colors alter with George’s moods and the seasons. (When autumn arrives, a pointillist shower of color falls from the sky.) The look of the show feels like thought made visible, just as Mr. Sondheim’s ravishing score, performed with gleaming delicacy by a five-member ensemble, seems made of painterly flecks of light and color.
That the vision in Act I is largely Seurat’s does not mean that those around him have only marginal existence. On the contrary, I’ve never seen a supporting cast for this show that presents such finely individuated characterizations, including those of Michael Cumpsty and Jessica Molaskey (as a rival artist and his wife), and Santino Fontana as a young soldier.
I became newly aware of the distinctive points of view of each, all striving for balance, and of the strength of Mr. Lapine’s book, as well as Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics, in rendering them. (Try counting the number of times the words “look” and “see” are used.) They range from the irritable melancholy of George’s ailing middle-class mother (the excellent Mary Beth Peil), who sees only change and decay, to the sardonic, brutal gaze of a one-eyed boatman (Alexander Gemignani). Then there is Dot, the semi-literate, pleasure-loving woman who does and who does not belong with George.
Less of a sensual powerhouse than Ms. Peters was in the part, Ms. Russell gives Dot an intuitive wisdom about life that mixes resignation with regret, genuine pain with a leveling sense of humor. In other words, she mirrors the judicious yet affecting tone of this production.
Ms. Russell also brings an anchoring compassion to the second act as Marie, the ancient daughter of Dot and the grandmother of young George, an American sculptor who designs color-and-light dispensing machines called chromolumes. (This version blessedly refrains from showing the machine itself.) That word alone is wince-worthy. The show’s satire of the 1980s art world has never felt witty or fresh, and it still doesn’t.
Yet thanks in part to the production’s inventive visuals — including a lovely time-traveling segue — this act has a charm and sensitivity it lacked in earlier incarnations. Also thanks to Mr. Evans and Ms. Russell, a humility. The 20th-century George’s lack of artistic direction feels touchingly of a piece with this second act, which becomes a paean to the process of self-questioning, even when answers are distant at best.
That the second act ends as the first does, in a ravishing epiphany of artistic harmony, now feels more than ever like a loving benediction, bestowed by the show’s creators on its audiences. Every member of those audiences, whether consciously or not, is struggling for such harmony in dealing with the mess of daily reality. How generous of this production — and it is the generosity of all great art — that it allows you, for a breathless few moments, to achieve that exquisite, elusive balance.
It could be argued that Broadway needs another show with state-of-the-art special effects like Washington needs more lobbyists. The triumph of spectacle over substance played a big role in commercial musical theater's precipitous decline in the 1980s and '90s.
But young British director/animator Sam Buntrock has managed to use technology to enhance the bittersweet beauty of one of that era's most substantive musicals: Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fictionalized account of 19th-century French pointillist Georges Seurat and his painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
In this London-based revival of Sunday (* * * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, animated and projected images grant us further access to the inspiration and aspirations behind the imagined George's creative process and that of the great-grandson who shares his name.
It's in the second act that we meet the second George, also an artist, as well as his grandmother Marie, the product of the first George's relationship with his long-suffering mistress and model, the playfully named Dot. Lapine's tart libretto and Sondheim's witty, rapturous score focus on the two ambitious, tormented artists and the women who, in very different ways, love and frustrate them.
Both Georges are played by the same actor, while one actress juggles the two women. The superb Daniel Evans makes clear the generational distinctions between the Georges while linking their obsessive, narcissistic tendencies, and making them sympathetic nonetheless. Jenna Russell, a sassy, sensual Dot, is funny, touching and completely convincing as the 98-year-old but still-wily Marie. Buntrock also culls lovely supporting performances from Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Molaskey, Mary Beth Peil and others.
Though critics tend to emphasize his cleverness, Sondheim's musicals are ultimately most compelling for their emotional intuition. Sunday, with its focus on the tension between life and art, is one of his most achingly tender works, and Buntrock underscores its visceral punch.
With help from his design team, the director gorgeously evokes that tension and its impact on artists and those close to them. We see the Parisian island and people represented in Seurat's masterwork — along with computer-generated dogs and live tourists — emerge and move about, in real time and in the painter's imagination. We then follow the second George from an exhibit of his postmodern light show to a latter-day city of lights, and watch time move back and forward as Dot reappears.
"Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new," she sings — giving her great-grandson, her old lover and all of us words to live and create by.