Those familiar with Huntington Theater Company’s 2015 production of A Little Night Music [BMInt review HERE], which missed the timing required to express the wry sardonic humor so central to Sondheim’s narratives, might hesitate before attending the Company’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, running through October 16th. They shouldn’t worry. Huntington’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s tour de force with director Peter DuBois at the helm, constitutes an elegant, beautifully timed and imaginative tribute to the art of making art. Posing questions such as ‘is the artist his art?,’ Sunday appropriates Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist work from 1884 Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, and in doing so brings into question T.S. Eliot’s adage that “no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Indeed, Sondheim created a show that, while reliant on a painting, can and does stand alone as one of the pinnacles of the musical theater repertoire.
S P G creates a fictitious Georges Seurat (a thoughtful and poised Adam Chanler-Berat) feverishly working on his painting to the exclusion of all else, including paying attention to his muse and sometimes girlfriend Dot (the extraordinary Jenni Barber). Forgoing serious relationships and finding it difficult to connect to those around him without crayons and paper in hand, Chanler-Berat’s George in Act I is a study in the hapless awkwardness of an absent-minded artist. Performed with astute delicacy, George is as demanding of Dot as he is of himself and his artistic vision. George teaches Dot the value of concentration as she models; he models this singularity of purpose throughout the act, and Chanler-Berat captures both George’s intensity of focus and disconnection from other people.
Act II brings us to the mid-1980s New York art scene with Seurat’s great-grandson, another George, premiering his conceptual electronic art piece/sculpture “Chromolume 7” in the company of his grandmother, 98-year-old Marie, Dot and Seurat’s daughter. The young George, 32 and from New Jersey, struggles to find a balance between the business of art—commissions, fundraisers, ingratiating himself to gallery board members —and discovering his own aesthetic as separate from his great-grandfather’s.
Sondheim’s music in S P G is curious in its departure from his other works, returning again and again to word painting and atmospheric interludes which allude to the careful dots of Seurat’s pointillist brushstrokes. In particular, the use of the celesta in these moments, reminds us of the pedantic George at work. Rather like Sondheim’s repetitive “typewriter” motif in Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim reminds us with economy and grace that music, like art, is work. Sometimes jarring, always characterizing a moment or character, the compositional language lends itself further away from the more typical, overly synthesized, highly percussive Broadway sound of the 1980s. Instead we have moments of lush romanticism (a soaring French horn solo from Ken Pope, luxurious arpeggios from Martha Moor on harp) interspersed with a pseudo-neoclassical chamber orchestra conducted by Eric Stern.
S P G sits somewhere at the nexus of opera and musical theater. There is no one show stopping ballad or aria, although George’s “Finishing the Hat” in Act I and Marie’s “Children and Art” in Act II both come close. Rather, a jigsaw puzzle of soliloquy and fractured choruses are structured around George and Dot’s competing needs in Act I, and George and Marie’s shared sense of detachment in Act II.
In both acts, Peter DuBois’s understated but precise stage direction transports us into the competitive world of social climbing women and their disapproving male counterparts. In Act I, his staging emphasizes the triangular nature of the relationship between George, Dot and the painting. Gender tensions throughout are marked by subtle shifts in tone, sometimes humorously so to bely accompanying class frictions, such as the interplay between Franz (Patrick Varner) and Frieda (Melody Butiu). In Act II the use of life-sized cardboard cutouts of 1980s George in different poses serves as a social critique of the expectations of the denizens of the two Georges’s worlds: filled with backstabbing friends, misguided administrators and jealous fellow artists.
I have often wondered whether the true protagonist of Act I is in fact, Dot. And with Jenni Barber’s performance, this certainly rings true. While remaining generous on stage to her fellow actors, Barber’s comic timing in the opening scene, her frustration and despair in subsequent moments and portrayal of Dot’s overarching resilience, were masterful. In the opening scene, her mechanical dress is both a moment of levity, and an implicit commentary on the straight-laced society she and Seurat inhabited and ultimately rejected. Robert Morgan’s costumes for Dot deserve special mention, allowing the constraints upon Dot as a woman to become literal through a binding corset and ungainly bustle.
Adam Chanler-Berat’s range is put to the test and celebrated when Seurat inhabits the personae of two cardboard cut-out dogs on stage. Cavorting, sniffing, barking and singing, he embodies not only the animals around him, but also the members of high society who critique his art, and the lower class servants, boatman, and shop girls who criticize his very existence. “Art is not work,” the Boatman challenges the audience. Chanler-Beret has fun, but this does not make light of the work that goes into the critique or the painting.
A particular focus in the narrative of the show is the search for light. On stage, this is seen with Zachary G. Borovay’s projections onto an otherwise blank canvas, featuring colorful dots in a narrow band framing the stage. In Act I, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, minus people, is used as a backdrop, effectively allowing the cast to fill the empty spaces. The dichotomy between two versus three-dimensional filling of space gives the stage the same textural richness that Seurat sought through his new artistic technique. Painting in a loft space above the action, Act I George is removed from those who mock him, while simultaneously lifted above their petty quibbles.
Derek McLane’s minimalist, white washed set itself forms the blank canvas each George seeks to fill, and the show traces the arc of a canvas waiting to be unwritten, even as the musical overwrites it with its own story of “order, tension, balance and harmony.” A meditation on creativity, and what must be sacrificed in order to achieve it, Sunday in the Park with George can be seen as one master of the art reflecting on another. Huntington’s production has both pathos and humor, and with superb leads and vigorous musical direction from Eric Stern what begins as a blank canvas is given color and light.
Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.