[New York Peasant by Wilfrid: March 31, 2008]
I am not only an enthusiast for Seurat's art, as already disclosed; I am also a avid scholar of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, at once perhaps his greatest and most problematic work. So rather than just say, nice show, go and see it which you should - it's Sunday, after all, on Broadway - you will have to bear with me while I scratch my head over aspects of this interpretation.
"I just heard a door open which has been closed a very long time." (Company)
An interpretation of British provenance, I should say, this Sunday was staged first in London by the Menier Chocolate Factory company, and is directed by Sam Buntrock, who brings to the task a background in comedy and animation as well as musical theater.
The production's British origins create a conundrum as far as accents are concerned: the British leads relax into native accents for the first Act, set in Paris - indeed, Jenna Russell's Dot is broad north country, for some reason (Jenna was born in London) . In the second Act, most of the characters are American, or try to be, although Jenna's Marie seems to veer between Charleston and Hartlepool.
But the real problems lie deeper. Daniel Evans gives us a wiry, nervy, hyperactive first Act George. His ability to coldly ignore Dot's affection is all too believable. His second Act George - bearing, Brits note, a striking resemblance to punk bard Howard Devoto - is distinctly nerdy. A gawky, goofy, would-be artist dabbling in technology and searching for authentic inspiration.
This second Act, set one hundred years after the completion of the "La Grand Jatte" masterpiece, is notoriously problematic. Even some Sondheim aficionados regard this work as essentially a one-Act show, and believe it should end with the realisation of the painting, the models falling into place - always a stunning coup de théâtre.
The difficulty with this view is that the story, the very point of the piece, is told in the second Act. And it is not the story of Seurat painting his painting. The challenges established by James Lapine's difficult book have to be squarely faced.
Second Act George, the supposed descendant of Seurat, must be a talented artist who has lost his way - not a fraud. His art-work, the "chromolume", can be cold but it mustn't be silly. The set-piece about the modern art-world, "Putting It Together", can be satirical, but must reflect Sondheim's real experience: he is telling the audience not that the parties and publicists and cocktail conversations are to be rejected by the authentic artist - rather that they are the price to be paid if the work is to have an audience.
This production makes a fair attempt at crossing these hurdles. It stumbles, however, at the most important. When George visits the present-day, almost unrecognizable Grand Jatte, meets Dot, and somehow becomes at once present-day George and Dot's George of one hundred years ago, the motivation between the characters must be passion.
Sondheim himself is categorical on this point: "(T)heir love is finnally consummated... at the end of the second act." If all that George learns from Dot is how to make better art, the show is desperately trivialised. Daniel Evans is a talented performer, with a fine pedigree, but as he stands nodding and actually giggling with enthusiasm as Dot sings "Move On", I have to conclude that his interpretation of the role is just wrong.
To be fair, Lapine's narrative is tortuous. Audiences understandably have some difficulty with the unexplained re-appearance of Dot - a ghost? his imagination? - and with her recognition of living George as her dead lover George. It's hardly less implausible, though, than Billy Bigelow's return to earth in the second half of Carousel, and that certainly works.
The aim must be to make not logical sense of the encounter, but musical and dramatic sense. The musical sense is all there, supplied by Sondheim in the motifs which repeat throughout the show. George becomes first Act George musically - there's no doubt of that. Indeed, Sondheim describes the score as one long love song, a duet between the leads: "a continuous and continuing love song that isn't completed until the end of the show."
Dot returns to the Grand Jatte one hundred years later with a gift for the living George (just as Billy Bigelow was permitted to return to earth with a gift for his daughter in Carousel). And the gift is not a lesson in becoming a better artist. This is hardly a new theme in Sondheim's work: in Company, Bobby is emotionally trapped; although there has some disagreement about the resolution, the result of the show's catharsis should be Bobby's emotional growth from defensiveness ("Marry Me A Little") to openness ("Being Alive").
First Act George is as much an emotional "zombie" as Bobby. The growth occurs in the second Act, through the intervention of Marie and then Dot: must occur if the story is to be worth telling.
Dramatically, the key lies in conveying a strong, passionate love, once denied, now affirmed. I've seen this accomplished. At the 2002 Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration in D.C., a production of Sunday ran for a handful of performances: I wonder if it can ever be bettered. The sexual chemistry between the leads, Melissa Errico and Raul Esparza, was disarming. The second Act left performers and audience in tears.
What Sunday is about - and it's not easily encapsulated - is not how to be a better artist. It's about, in a word, posterity. It's explicitly about what we can leave behind - namely, children and art. If George learns anything from his encounter with Dot, it's about both how to become the sort of person who can love - who can invest in family and children - and the sort of artist who can continue to be creative.
If he learns only how to make something better than a "chromolume", he's still just first Act George.
Interpretation aside, I hardly need to say that the score is ravishing. The setting is adept, the cast strong (although Evans and Russell are not powerhouse singers) and there's some unintrusive fun with animation.
The Roundabout advertises Sunday here. The Sondheim quotes above are reproduced from Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co (2nd ed. 1986, Harper & Row), p 301.