Stage Review: The 5th Ave.’s Luminous Sunday

Bit by bit, bringing Seurat and Sondheim to life.

To tell the story of the creation of Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte—and explore larger questions of originality and inspiration—librettist James Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim invented identities for the anonymous Parisians depicted in the painting. These include a mistress for Seurat, the ironically named Dot; his mother and her nurse; his rival Jules and Jules' wife Yvonne; and a crowd of servants, grisettes, workers, and soldiers who, the creators imagine, unknowingly inspired Seurat to his greatest work. Vignettes of their invented lives surround the central plotline of Act 1 of Sunday in the Park with George—Georges' three-year obsession with this painting and the way it destroys his relationship with Dot.Act 2 is set a century later—or what was the present day when Sunday, the musical, opened on Broadway precisely 25 years ago this Saturday. Here, Lapine sends up the money-driven, fast-track art world of New York City in the '80s. (Though time has softened the brittleness of the satire; it now plays as a straight period piece, and the new-wave gear on a couple of gallerygoers looks as quaint as Act 1's bustles and parasols.) The actors all take new roles as art mavens at the unveiling of a new work by another George—the great-grandson of Dot and (most likely) Seurat. When the piece flops, George makes a pilgrimage to La Grande Jatte to try to get his art-making groove back. What he needs, his centenarian grandmother Marie tells him, is not to search outside himself for some new gimmick, but inside.As sparkling as sunlight on the Seine, as luminous and lovingly detailed as Seurat's pointillist canvas itself, this revival (the 5th Avenue is its third stop, after London and Broadway) is so persuasive I started thinking of the performances themselves in terms of painting. Just as Seurat set specks of contrasting colors next to each other to be blended by the viewer's eye, Hugh Panaro, playing Georges/George, effectively combines contrary traits—leading-man charm and obsessiveness, even coldness—into something vivid and true. As a painter might edge a detail with white, Billie Wildrick just touches Dot's vocal lines with vibrato here and there, where they need emotional highlighting. In other scenes, again for telling effect, her voice is as flat as Seurat's controversial, rule-breaking sense of perspective. David Drummond plays the Boatman in bold, slashing strokes, while Patti Cohenour draws Yvonne in delicate, cool outlines.Scenically, this production boasts an elaborate computer-projection system. Much more than a slideshow of backdrops, the white set becomes a three-walled screen for trompe-l'oeil animation with which the characters sometimes interact, Roger Rabbit style. Such visual wizardry risks being distancing or overwhelming, but it never is here—this is no pack-'em-in gimmick on the level of Miss Saigon's helicopter or The Phantom of the Opera's chandelier. Though in the clever Act 2 party scene in which the real George gets duplicated by holograms of himself as he works the room, the actors do have to work just a bit harder than they otherwise might've to project their personalities beyond the CGI box surrounding them.Where this system really stuns is the famed Act 1 finale. With projections providing the background of trees and lawn, Georges gingerly, balletically, arranges the cast into poses that reproduce the placement of the figures in his painting, bringing it alive as a three-dimensional tableau. Sondheim, whose score has been stripped-down and reticent—very French—until then, finally brings in the full choir, first as just a murmur, then, as the tableau coalesces, filling the hall.The driven lives of artists can be great stage or film fodder, but only if you focus on anything but their actual work. Work is boring to watch—Amadeus' conflict with Salieri is a movie, Amadeus' quill pen scratching hour after hour on score paper is not a movie, even though it's the scratching that makes everything else possible. What this finale does, amazingly, is to turn the act of making into an incomparable thrill. And the technology here, as technology should, enhances (rather than outdazzles or supplants) the imagination of the show's creators and the skill of its

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