As Act I closed of Gary Griffin's new production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I found myself curiously unengaged by this version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. By the final curtain, however, the thinner and shorter Act II had done its job, and I had a lump in my throat.
My mixed reaction has nothing to do with the strong lead performances of Jason Danieley, as French painter George Seurat in Act I and his fictional great-grandson George in Act II, and Carmen Cusack as, respectively, Seurat's lover Dot and her daughter Marie. Their trim figures and big, flexible voices more than fill the bill.
Danieley is unafraid to sound harsh and grating in Act I, enacting a Seurat who almost literally spits out his passions. Moreover, he offers up a Seurat who is unkind, ungenerous, and snarling. One feels no sympathy for him, even if one understands his obsession and admires his achievements. He is definite in both his ideals and goals.
The George of Act II also is struggling with fulfilling artistic expression, but he shares the spotlight and is filled with self-doubt. And unlike his predecessor, this George faces the future with radiant hope rather than clear vision. Perhaps both Georges are necessary to finish the picture.
Kevin Depinet's scenic design is big, spare, and mechanical with a constant use of two floor traps, two enormous white picture frames, and very little else on the broad, deep thrust stage, lit by Philip S. Rosenberg. Instead, Mike Tutaj's elaborate projections —replacing pointillism with pixels —provide most of the color and scenery, while Mara Blumenfeld provides the Seurat-inspired costumes, with an especially gorgeous patterned white-on-white dress for Dot in Act II.
This admittedly solemn interpretation may not be for everyone, but it ultimately succeeds with gravitas and intelligence, not with charm or softness.