Brynn O'Malley as Dot and Claybourne Elder as George in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Signature Theatre.
Brynn O'Malley as Dot and Claybourne Elder as George in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Signature Theatre.
(© Signature Theatre)

Virginia's Signature Theatre opens its 25th season with a stunning new production of Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to the creative process and the inimitable style of French painter Georges Seurat. The show opens with Seurat (the powerful Claybourne Elder) as a young man in 1884, working on his most famous painting, "A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which depicts many people spending a sunny afternoon on a grassy island not far from Paris, watching boats, fishing, and playing with their children and their pets.

The first act of the show (book by James Lapine) follows Seurat as he sketches in the park and contemplates the disorder of human existence. Later, he retreats to his studio where he transforms that disorder into harmony using his signature pointillism technique, by which tiny dots of color, rather than brushstrokes, are used to form an image. The first scene shows Seurat sketching his lover and model, Dot (the dynamic Brynn O'Malley), who complains about having to get up early and stand in the hot sun. The duet she sings with Seurat (the title number) establishes the basis of her relationship to Georges. She loves him, but he is too obsessed with finishing his painting to return her love.

In Act 2, the scene shifts to a 20th-century gallery, where Seurat's great-grandson, a young man named George, is trying to drum up support for his sculptures made of light, a modern-day equivalent to Seurat's search for the new. Elder also gives a strong performance as George, who is unlike his great-grandfather in emotional terms but equally determined to explore the unknown. He is a modern man who doesn't mind taking on his critics. With George at the gallery is his grandmother, Marie, who is Dot's daughter. As Marie, O'Malley sings a final beautiful ballad about the two things she feels are worth dedicating your life to: "Children and Art."

Director Matthew Gardiner creates lively scenes of Parisian life, portraying moments of boredom, jealousy, and infidelity in the lives of the people who spend their Sundays on La Grande Jatte. One particular standout tableau turns into the number "Gossip," sung by Susan Derry, Erin Driscoll, Paul Scanlan, Donna Migliaccio, Maria Egler, Mitchell Hébert, and Valerie Leonard.

Again and again, the music and lyrics (impeccably performed by 11 musicians, music-directed by Jon Kalbfleisch) reflect Sondheim's ability to see into the soul — even, delightfully, that of a dog. In "Everybody Loves Louis," Dot ironically expresses her love for Georges by praising the boring baker, Louis (Joseph Mace), whom she intends to marry. In his most moving number, Georges sings "Finishing the Hat," a hymn to the importance of shutting out the "real" world in order to work on his painting.

Daniel Conway's scenic design creates a perfect space for Act 1, building a proscenium arch at the rear of the stage, within which Seurat's half-finished painting can be viewed as it goes through various stages of alteration. The area in front of the arch serves both as Georges' atelier and as the park. Act 2 takes place in an open white space with screens set up for George's light show.

One of Seurat's most passionate interests was the way light worked; Jennifer Schriever's lighting design subtly illustrates how he altered his painting over time, so that most of the characters who are primarily in the sun at the beginning of the musical are eventually shaded, by parasols or trees. Frank Labovitz's colorful costumes perfectly reproduce the stiff dress of the late 1800s, including bustles for women and top hats for men.

Throughout Act 1, Seurat mentions the things that inspire him: order, design, composition, tension, balance. From the first duet between Dot and Georges to the final reprise of "Sunday," the Signature ensemble does a first-class job of making visible these elements, to which Seurat dedicated his life.