Connecting the dots in Sunday in the Park with George
Sondheim’s musical tribute to Seurat is a delight to the eyes and ears
Sunday in the Park with George
Directed by Peter DuBois
Starring Adam Chanler-Berat and Jenni Barber
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Huntington Theatre Company
Avenue of the Arts / Boston University Theatre
Sept. 9 - Oct. 16, 2016
Having to get up early on a Sunday. I can’t blame Dot for complaining as she dutifully models at the break of dawn for her lover, the painter Georges Seurat. You’d probably recognize the painting he’s working on: it’s one of the most reproduced and parodied paintings in the world. The TV show The Office used it as the cover photo for one of its seasons, but its greater claim to fame is in its pioneering use of pointillism, the artistic style in which the canvas consists, not of brushstrokes, but of dabs or “points” of color.
The painting in question, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, served as a theatrical and musical inspiration for Stephen Sondheim, who has been described as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater.” For actor Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher and Next to Normal) and director Peter DuBois (A Little Night Music), who hopped on a plane to view the original painting, it was a source of creative energy.
The Tony Award-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George, is comprised of two layers that, by the end, seamlessly fuse into one. The first stratum is a fictionalized account of Georges Seurat (Adam Chanler-Berat): working on his masterpiece in the year 1884, he simultaneously struggles to connect with the people around him, especially his devoted mistress Dot (Jenni Barber). The second is of Seurat’s great-grandson, also an artist and also named George (also Adam Chanler-Berat), who is struggling to recapture his artistic vitality.
In Act I, we are introduced to each of the luscious characters that will eventually comprise the tableau — be prepared, there are a lot of them. We meet Jules, the pompous artist and Georges’s “friend,” Louis, the baker whom everyone loves and whom Dot eventually marries, and the grumpy sailor with a disobedient cardboard-cutout dog. There are German servants and vulgar Americans. There are secret trysts in the bushes and good old backstabbing among friends. With his paintbrush, Georges exercises the influence he does not have in real life and forces this madhouse to freeze, stand still, and face the way he wants it to. In Act II, George #2 is presenting his latest piece, Chromolume #7, an avant-garde tribute to Seurat’s masterpiece. He ruminates on the state of arts. He is tired of making Chromolumes, but he needs the funding.
Chanler-Berat expertly conveys the loneliness and frustration of the artist. “Connect, George, connect!” he tells himself, but how can he when all he can think about is “Finishing the Hat”? The actors were in perfect synchrony with the music.
Director DuBois said that he really wanted to start off working on the music so that the actors would internalize it. They certainly did, as evidenced by Chanler-Berat’s precisely timed paint-dabbing and by the skillful pitter-pattering of Jenni Barber’s lovely voice as she fires off sixteenth notes in the title song “Sunday.”
At first, I was thrown off because Acts I and II were so wildly different in terms of setting, ambience, and character development. It almost doesn’t work. Sondheim establishes the musical bridge between the two acts, but what of the characters and the thematic element?
Chanler-Berat, who plays both Georges Seurat and his great-grandson, enables a beautiful transition. No longer bearded, but still endowed with the same artistic fervor, he is undoubtedly a “George,” but manages to subtly maneuver around the trap of embodying the same character as in Act I. The finale bridges any enduring gap between the two acts as George reclaims his artistic inspiration by looking to the past.
The painter Seurat was fascinated by the idea of the observer’s eye, rather than the painter, mixing the colors: seeing adjacent red and blue dots, for example, and interpreting them as a violet hue. In Sunday, Sondheim takes pointillism to the stage and to the score. Georges used only 11 colors in the painting. Guess how many musical instruments are used in the orchestra?
Each instrument is a soloist; it is your ears that do the mixing. Each character is a dab of color and can be inspected individually. But take a step back, and now this person is a part of the larger canvas of society. Your eye mixes his native hue with the hues of those around him, of the relationships he forms, of the role he plays — and voilà, “no man is an island.”
The Huntington Theatre is on an ambitious quest to stage all fifteen of Sondheim’s productions. This is their second. In the words of director DuBois, “We are in a town where people like to geek out over certain things, and Sondheim is amazing to geek out on.” Well, count me in.