Melissa Errico and Raúl Esparza inSunday in the Park with George(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Melissa Errico and Raúl Esparza in
Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George can fairly be cited as an example of art imitating art. Now joining Sweeney Todd and Company in rotating repertory in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, this musical attempts to do in the theater what French artist Georges Seurat did on canvas, an experience that Sondheim devotees will no doubt enjoy but one that others may find a bit flat. Starring Raúl Esparza and Melissa Errico, Sunday was directed by Eric Schaeffer with advice from Sondheim himself.

Seurat was a pioneer in the art of pointillism, the practice of applying small strokes or dots of color to a surface so that, when seen from a distance, they blend together to form colors and images. His most famous work, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," depicts a varied group of people enjoying a peaceful day in a tranquil setting. It inspired this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, which attempts to provide an intimate look at the creative process.

Act One takes us to Paris in 1884 as George (as he's called here) concentrates on his canvas, burying himself in his work and striving to impose order and harmony on all he sees. The painter sacrifices his relationship with a model named Dot because he is fixated solely on his work. Dot's name is appropriate in that she is just another point of color on the canvas of the artist's life; he never steps back to see the big picture. Pregnant with Seurat's daughter, Dot abandons George, an event he hardly notices because he is so intent on his painting. The artist finally achieves his idealized tableau as the full-throated choral anthem "Sunday" provides a dazzling, goosebump-inducing end to the act.

The second act is set 100 years later. The American grandson of Seurat and Dot's daughter--also named George, and an artist of sorts himself--struggles with the video pixels of multi-media presentations. The talent of the modern George is somewhat in question; he seems to concentrate more of his energy on deal-making and the logistics of his craft than on creating images. He finds himself drawn to the island on the Seine River where his great-grandfather was inspired to create his masterpiece. This once idyllic spot has become urbanized, yet the spirit of Seurat seems to reach across time to inspire the young man. The show ends as it begins, with an artist confronting white space on canvas.

This is an unusual musical, partly in terms of its structure; for example, there is quite a bit of dialogue before the first notes of music are heard, and there is no dancing in the show whatsoever. The dozen-member orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, mostly supplies spare and sometimes dissonant counterpoint and punctuation to the singing of the cast, whose voices provide whatever melody there is to be found. Sondheim seems to have wanted to replicate in music what Seurat did with brush and paint; it is only when one pulls back and lets the work of the orchestra and the vocalists combine that the songs begin to emerge.

There is almost no character development in Lapine's book and, except for the subplot involving Dot's abandoning the relationship with Seurat and moving to America with her new husband, there is little dramatic tension. Though the creators' contemplation of the artistic process is interesting, many theatergoers may find the experience lacking in emotional impact and musically uninspiring, even if some of it is quite clever. (An example of said cleverness: In the early number "Color and Light," Dot pampers herself while singing, dabbing powder on herself in rhythm with Sondheim's staccato notes--which are also matched by Seurat stabbing paint onto the canvas and singing in synchronization.)

Esparza, Errico, and company in Sunday in the Park with George(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Esparza, Errico, and company in Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Raúl Esparza gets to shine in "The Day Off," a song during which George's reserve thaws enough for the star to earn laughs by imitating a singing dog. In "Finishing the Hat," Esparza's lovely light baritone has a rare opportunity to express feeling as he sings of being removed from the world even while attempting to document it. Melissa Errico has a strong, clear voice that is put to good use in her solo "Everybody Loves Louis," in which Dot convinces herself to marry a steady, non-artistic man, and in the lament she sings with Esparza, "We Do Not Belong Together." Unfortunately, she is also saddled with having to sing "Children and Art" as Dot's shaky, 100-year old daughter, Marie, in Act Two. There's a reason why 100-year-old women aren't often asked to sing in Broadway shows, as this unfortunate choice makes clear.

Schaeffer has assembled a fine, energetic cast composed mostly of Washington area regulars for the ensemble. Local stalwarts Sherri Edelen and Tracy Lynn Olivera stand out in a variety of smaller roles, particularly as two girls both named Celeste who inadvertently find themselves immortalized in the painting. Another familiar local performer, Donna Migliaccio, does a scene-stealing comic turn with area actor Henry A. Winter as "Mr. And Mrs.," a pair of gauche, nouveau riche Texans visiting Paris.

The production is visually striking thanks to the costumes of Anne Kennedy and to fine sets by Derek McLane, who also designed Sweeney Todd and Company. Having one set designer for all three shows may have been necessary because of the rigorous technical demands of mounting three full-sized Broadway-level musicals in repertory on one stage, but it also pays artistic dividends. Here, McLane has framed the Eisenhower Theater stage with a series of three borders composed of empty painter's canvases. Seurat is seen working on his massive painting on a scaffold visible through a painted scrim, which allows him to sing and paint while facing the audience.

Like the paintings of Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George has a cumulative effect. The audience at the opening-weekend performance I attended reacted to the individual songs with polite applause but rewarded the cast with a standing ovation at the end.