Sam Buntrock, the director of the mesmerizing revival of
Sunday in the Park With George that the Roundabout has imported from London, has spent a good part of his 32 years as a commercial animator. His expertise at computer-generated imagery and the visual ideas with which he backs it up are crucial to this backward glance at the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fantasy. It’s a safe bet that the imagined story of how Georges Seurat constructed his masterpiece while botching a love affair with one of his models has never been so aesthetically stunning.
The painstaking manner in which Seurat arrived at “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is approximated in a constantly eye-catching fashion by Buntrock with projection designers Timothy Bird and The Knifedge Creative Network. Yet, Buntrock has been careful never to let what’s happening on the back walls of David Farley’s high-ceilinged set upstage the personal and professional drama Seurat (Daniel Evans) is experiencing with his understandably impatient inamorata, Dot (Jenna Russell). The result is a first-rate presentation of a loved and respected musical, which is further festooned with slick and touching performances by Evans and Russell, the only holdovers from the London staging.
As images of trees and sailboats and promenaders and dogs and shadows suddenly appear in the projected painting and just as suddenly disappear, the Sondheim-Lapine treatise on the pull between art and life unfolds. Distilled to its essence — which is what Seurat, employing his pointillist technique, sought to do with light and color — Sunday in the Park is the shattering look a man who can connect the dots on canvas but not in life.
Other than the often neglected Dot (get the joke?), the people George is sketching — and who populate the musical’s first act are — only so many objects to him. Even his mother (Mary Jane Peil) and her nurse (Anne L. Nathan) don’t command his attention. He does have some regard and need for fellow artist Jules (Michael Cumpsty) and his wife Yvonne (Jessica Molaskey), but only because the opinionated Jules can serve as a career booster.
Composing some of his most sophisticated songs, Sondheim has wittily chosen to lean on staccato dot-dot-dot melody lines that Jason Carr enhances in keeping with Michael Starobin’s original orchestrations. Seurat’s real passion in his brief life is set forth on “Finishing the Hat,” the best known piece in a score that has no love songs — because the tuner’s protagonist can’t allow himself to love. (Musical comedy dissertation writers, note: Sondheim has said he wasn’t consciously writing autobiographically when preparing the musical, but as he finished, he saw he’d reflected some of own long-time artistic struggles.)
The enterprise’s emotional high point occurs at the first-act finale when the people Seurat has been incorporating in his work are propelled into a chaotic argument from which the painter imposes the “order” he’s been carrying on about. That’s when Lapine and Sondheim achieve a sustained moment unlike any other to be found in the musical genre. Simultaneously, they depict the triumph of an artist at the peak of his powers and the abject defeat of a man succumbing to his ineptitude at coping with day-to-day messiness.
There is a second half to Sunday in the Park, which begins as we revisit the painting — with the polished-to-a-high-gloss cast feeling the discomfort of holding their rigid poses. Immediately after that point, however, a century fades away and we are in America. Thrust into the opening of his latest exhibit is an artist named George (Evans again, now more hotly emotional), whom his grandmother Marie (Russell, still sweet but aged) insists is Seurat’s great-grandson. To a museum full of art-world types familiar from other satirical plays and musicals, George is presenting his seventh “Chromolume,” which is based on the same light-and-color theories his ancestor formulated.
While the ever-resourceful Sondheim writes a few more breathtaking songs — notably “Move On” and “Art Isn’t Easy” — the show’s brilliant first act is essentially replaced by a mundane disquisition on an artist facing a creative block that he eventually gets over. Why Sondheim and Lapine insisted on turning their first-act order into second-act disorder is an enigma. So, yes, art isn’t easy, but that first act still rises like a monument to what musical comedy can be at its Seurat-like zenith.