by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Sunday In the Park With George, the musical
By Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine Directed by Sam Buntrock
The Roundabout Theatre Studio 54, 254 West 54st Street
Reviewed March 1, 2008 by Margaret Croyden

By now everyone knows the story of this famous Stephen Sondheim's musical( for this its third revival) that deals with Georges Seurat's remarkable pointillist painting of "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Using the painting as a background (actually the main subject), Sondheim ingeniously attempts to dissect Seurat's egomaniacal obsession with his art, an obsession that leads to the painter's neglect of mother, lover, child, friend--anyone who may distract him from his all consuming, passionate commitment to painting.

The most inventive aspect of this production is not so much its story (although that is fascinating too) but the director's (Sam Buntrock) use of modern technology: computerized images, digital projections, clever animations that show the painting coming to life, its beginning, its progress and its glorious end. (Seurat's beginning black line drawings appear on a scrim timed exactly with the movement of his hands). The technique is also used to show those who are dramatized in the story will become characters in the painting.

George sits in the park and draws. There people arrive (who later will emerge full blown on his canvas): his elderly mother, his lover (appropriately named Dot), strolling aristocrats carrying their parasols, a woman with a monkey, a woman and her child, a worker in his Sunday clothes, a couple in their finery. Some recline on the grass lost in memory, or are cuddled together side by side suggesting romantic love. Surrounding the group are the gorgeous trees, its leaves swaying gently in the breeze, the the pale blue river, and the brilliant sunlight that illuminates the entire picture creating a spectacular color arrangement. Then at the end of the First Act, in a brilliant Coup du Theatre, we see the completed masterpiece: a 72 square foot freeze of Seurat's famous "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Looking at that painting is worth the price of admission.

Sam Buntrock, the director, an experienced professional animator utilized computerized images and animations (never used successfully on the Broadway stage), and, to his credit, they were riveting: the movement of trees, the river, the park in all its beauty. And the details: the stance, the color and costumes of the people-- strolling, sitting, or lying on the grass--all first appear as part of the fictionalized story and then we find them exactly as they are on the canvass.

Besides the successful use of technology, the most important aspect of this production is Sondheim's attempt to discover the mystery of the artist's commitment to his art, how art is conceived, and the driving force behind creation. Could one assume that "Sunday," was also about Sondheim's own search for the mystery of his own art and the force that keeps it going? One wonders what his thoughts are about that.

Though Sondheim's probe is imaginative his music is not. Admittedly his librettos are ingenuous, the word rhythms are witty, and the irony bitter. To his credit, he chooses important social and contemporary sensibilities for his stories. But he has been short on melody, the basis for all music, though some admire the composer for creating a new kind of musical, though it is difficult to remember any of his songs that linger except "Bring In the Clowns".
Nevertheless "Sunday In The Park" is an example of a serious musician dealing with serious matters. Still the production's most resourceful technique is the use of the technology which for all its inventiveness, in the end, left me cold--even somewhat bored at times.

Daniel Evans as George did not help. He missed the vitality, the force, the presence that this character demands. In fact, the entire company was ordinary: actors postured, indicated their roles and virtually no one had a good voice.

Still, Sondheim is to be admired. He has tried to delve into the mystery of an artist's creation, a heroic search which in itself is a beautiful thing. For that alone one should see this work.

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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