On Stage: Dreaming of Sunday

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Signature’s revival of Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ sparkles.

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Signature Theatre's "Sunday in the Park with George." (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Brynn O’Malley (Dot) and Claybourne Elder (George) in Signature Theatre’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” (Photo by Margot Schulman)

It takes a special genius to look at George Seurat’s masterpiece – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette – and make it the inspiration for a Broadway musical. And genius is the only appropriate word when experiencing that painting-inspired musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning creation with words and music by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, now in an impressive revival at Signature Theatre.

In an interview, Sondheim once said he was attracted by the 48 figures in the 1886 Seurat masterpiece of middle class, everyday Parisians enjoying an afternoon in the park along the Seine River. But oddly, none of the characters are interacting with any other character on the massive 10-foot wide canvas. Each seems oblivious of anyone else in the park. Sondheim said he and Lapine felt there was a missing person in the painting — George Seurat. And therein is the basis of this provocative musical.

The director, Matthew Gardiner, deftly brings to life the large cast that Sondheim and Lapin imagined in taking several figures from the painting, and in a magical fiction, make them living participants that Seurat observed and used as unaware models. Gardiner’s staging emphasizes Seurat’s indifference to them as he works obsessively on his new neo-Impressionist technique, labeled pointillism — the dabbing of small dots of vivid color that the eye blends when viewed from a distance.

As imagined by Sondheim and Lapin, Seurat is an unlikable obsessive, portrayed and sung with an effective intensity by Claybourne Elder as George. His mistress and model, Dot, a semi-literate beauty (Brynn O’Malley) loves George who treats her with condescension and indifference. Her voice is especially heart-rending in the “Move On” duet between Dot and Seurat’s great grandson, also named George, and played by Elder without the heavy Seurat beard.

Especially wonderful is when George sings “Finishing the Hat,” the song that describes his intense drive and focus on this unique art form with his attention tightly focused on painting a hat. The music imitates the sharp, staccato stabbing of his brush. It is revealing that Sondheim used “Finishing the Hat” for the title of his 2010 book, a collection of his lyrics and musings in a kind-of autobiographical admission that like George, Sondheim is also obsessive about the creative process of his art.

Sondheim doesn’t write music that is easy to play and perform, but Signature is devoted to the musical theater genius and it is always a rewarding theatrical experience when the theater company puts on a Sondheim musical. This production enhances that tradition and is still another reminder of musical director Jon Kalbfleisch’s impressive talent. The music is the heart and soul the production, but Kalbfleisch has a respectful touch that enhances Sondheim’s artistry and supports the voices of the talented cast Gardiner has assembled.

Frank Labovitz’s costume design appears as though he somehow, magically removed the clothing from the figures in the painting. Everything works to enhance this production in Signature’s intimate theater space, especially when the second act ends with the actors on the stage recreating the poses of the painting in a stunning tableau. Jennifer Schriever’s harmonious lighting design and Daniel Conway’s set design ranges from the late 19th century when the painting was created in the first act, to modern day in the second act with George’s great grandson who creates colorful, electronic dots of light as his art form. It can be a jarring change of scene, but it works. It is in the final act where the great grandson and Dot, meet in that magical time warp and sing the beautiful, but plaintive “Move On.”

We have always belonged together

We will always belong together

Just keep moving on …

Sunday in the Park with George” continues through Sept. 21, 2014 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets start at $40 and are available at 703-573-7328 and online here.

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