Monday, September 26, 2016

The Art of Making Art: Sunday in the Park with George

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George at Boston's Huntington Theatre. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

Continuing its mission to produce the full canon of Stephen Sondheim musicals, Boston’s Huntington Theatre has opened its 2016-2017 season with a solid revival of Sunday in the Park with George – both musically and in terms of stagecraft one of his most demanding pieces. Sunday in the Park, which has a book by James Lapine – who directed the 1984 Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters – is an imaginative account of how the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (Americanized as George in the musical) created his masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. It’s been widely identified as Sondheim’s most personal work – not just a treatise on making art but also a defense of the kind of art that can appear dispassionate and theoretical, by musical theatre’s most famously precise and cooled-out practitioner. In Seurat, whose pointillist approach to painting was condemned by critics and by his fellow artists as cold and pseudo-scientific, Sondheim found the ideal medium for arguing that art that seems to displace emotion can in fact subsume it, and that a man who puts his art ahead of romance and family is not necessarily cold and unfeeling. Dot, George’s model and mistress, leaves him because she feels unattended to, frozen out. She’s carrying his baby, and he’s content to let her new lover, Louis the baker, raise the child as his own. She comes to his studio to ask for a painting he did of her as a souvenir, and to try one more time to get him to convey some feeling for her before she and Louis emigrate to America, where he’s secured a job as a pastry chef for a rich couple. George disappoints her on both counts; he pushes her away, claiming he has to work. “Hide behind your painting,” she exclaims. “I have come to tell you I am leaving because I thought you might care to know – foolish of me, because you care about nothing.” “I care about many things,” he protests. “Things – not people,” she objects. “People, too,” he insists. “I cannot divide my feelings up as neatly as you, and I am not hiding behind my canvas – I am living in it.”

The Seurat plot of Sunday in the Park may be a case of special pleading, but it certainly makes that case. It’s Sondheim’s most conceptual work, but emotion bursts out of wildly inventive and unorthodox songs like “Color and Light,” “Finishing the Hat” and especially “Sunday,” the first-act finale, where – repeating his mantra: “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony” – George arranges the turbulent characters he’s been sketching every Sunday on La Grande Jatte into a sublime group portrait, set against the verdant backdrop of “our perfect park.” “Set against” isn’t quite right, because George, as he’s told Dot, can’t divide up his feelings; nature and humanity are interlaced. “Sunday” always reminds me of Pauline Kael’s explanation, in her review of The Emigrants, of the director Jan Troell’s insistence on weighting all the visual elements in the frame, including but not restricted to the human ones, equally. Moreover, this song, which I think is the best thing Sondheim’s ever written, is his attempt to find a musical equivalent to pointillism, using harmony to approximate the effect of Seurat’s “conjoined” hues (red and blue juxtaposed, as George explains to a fellow artist, Jules, so that the eye of the beholder transforms it into violet). I lack the musical theory to explain how he gets it work, but my ear and my eye tell me it does; it glimmers and swells, and it climaxes, with the perfect replica of Seurat’s painting, in one of the ecstatic moments in the history of musical theatre.

Adam Chanler-Berat and Jenni Barber in Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

Sunday in the Park is a brilliant one-act musical. Unfortunately, however, it does have a second act, which, from the moment it begins, feels forced, falsely extended. Act two opens with “It’s Hot Up Here,” sung by the figures trapped in George’s painting. Yes, it’s funny, yes, it’s clever, but what the hell is it doing in the show? It doesn’t advance any themes or develop any characters; it merely echoes Dot’s physical discomfort while she’s posing for her lover at the beginning of the first act (in the title number). You can feel Sondheim scratching his head, baffled about where to go now that he’s finished both the story about George and Dot and the story about the creation of the painting. We learn that George died at thirty-two, and then the musical pitches forward a century. The protagonist is now an American installation artist, also named George, whose grandmother Marie, who’s at the end of her life, insists that she’s Seurat’s illegitimate daughter, born in Paris but raised by Dot and Louis in the American South. (The actors who played Seurat and Dot in act one, of course, now take on the roles of George and Marie.) George creates “chromolumes,” technologically complex sculptures that produce spectacular light shows, and creatively he’s stuck – he’s just introduced the seventh in the series, and he can’t seem to make anything else. Act one deals peripherally with the hostile response of the art world to Seurat’s work (through the character of Jules), but in act two Sondheim and Lapine shift, at least for a while, to a more broadly satirical tone in its treatment of the art world of the late twentieth century. But the point of the satire aren’t secure. We understand that George has to work the room at his opening, kissing the asses of potential donors because his art is so expensive; we get that he has to deal with an acerbic critic named Blair Daniels who passes judgment on him for merely repeating himself. She’s a facile target: when Marie asks her if she has a family, she ducks out rather than answer. The audience laughs at the joke about this cold-hearted dame who doesn’t seem to have a personal life – even though act one urges us to sympathize with an artist who lets another man adopt his child. Is it OK for George because he’s an artist, and she’s merely a critic? In the second-act song “Move On,” George is advised: “Stop worrying if your vision / Is new. / Let others make that decision -- / They usually do,” and we don’t miss the irony about non-artists holding forth on the work of real artists. The trouble is, Blair happens to be right: George needs to get free of those damn chromolumes somehow.

A big part of the act two problem is that, however open-minded you are about contemporary art, after A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte it’s hard to get revved up about an artist who stages mammoth computerized light shows. And there’s no dramatic resolution. Having contracted to set up one of his chromolumes on the Grande Jatte, George travels to France and, in the setting of his great-grandfather’s greatest painting, he communes with the ghost of Dot, who talks to him as if he were Seurat reborn. (It’s she who inspires him with “Move On.”) At the end he reads Seurat’s mantra from the notes at the back of the grammar book Marie inherited from her mother and the figures from the painting return for a reprise of “Sunday.” So the musical returns to the end of the first act because in truth it’s never moved convincingly past it.

Josh Breckenridge, Adam Chanler-Berat and Aimee Doherty in Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

For the Huntington revival the director, Peter DuBois, mostly repeats Lapine’s original staging (the choreographer is Daniel Pelzig), and the scenic designer, Derek McLane, sticks pretty much to the ideas of the Broadway designer, Tony Straiges. I don’t mean this as a criticism: the show is so specifically conceptualized that there’s little room to experiment. So we get the cardboard cut-outs, not only to suggest the dogs George (Adam Chanler-Berat) communes with in “The Day Off” (where he takes on the personae of all his models, not just the humans) but also for the various clones the modern-day George distributes around the room, frozen in various poses for the delectation of the guests in “Putting It Together.” In fact, the only part of McLane’s set I don’t much care for is his own addition, two imposing cream-colored structures, one marking off each of the wings, that are suitable for the interior scenes but incongruous on La Grande Jatte. (At one point a young woman fishing on the river casts her line through what looks like a doorway.) Robert Morgan’s costumes are much more effective for the 1880s scenes than the ugly-looking 1980s scenes, but then the ones Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward came up with for the Broadway production made the same error – using the modern outfits to underscore the show’s satirical take on the late-twentieth-century art world, which throws the poor actors (and especially the actresses) wearing them under the bus.

Under Eric Stern’s superb musical direction, the ensemble meets the challenges of the score. If some of the supporting cast mug a little (Bobbie Steinbach, as George’s on-and-off-demented mother, is the main perpetrator), Lapine has written most of the characters as caricatures anyway. I don’t know what anyone can do with the gross American bourgeois (played here by James Andrew Walsh and Amy Barker), and Jules’ German domestics (Patrick Varner and Melody Butiu) aren’t much subtler. Josh Breckenridge as Jules doesn’t begin to suggest the character of an artist of the period, and I think an actor cast as a Parisian ought to learn how to pronounce “bonjour” correctly. But Aimee Doherty is rather touching as his wife Yvonne, and in act two she does everything she can with the role of Blair Daniels.

Bobbie Steinbach and Adam Chanler-Berat in Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

Jenni Barber is in superb voice as Dot, and you can feel the audience’s pleasure when she executes the tricky parts of the title song and “Color and Light” and “Everybody Loves Louis.” But she tries too hard to channel Bernadette Peters (who gave her most celebrated stage performance in Sunday in the Park). Really she’s rather like Peters crossed with Goldie Hawn, and to use an acting-class term, she indicates like crazy. In “Everybody Loves Louis,” when she gets to the lines about what her baker lover is like in bed (“I mean he kneads me - / I mean like dough, George”) she massages her crotch, as if we might not get the joke otherwise. For all I know that bit of business was mandated by DuBois, but it’s only the most glaring example of Barber’s general overemphasis. She’s fine when she calms down and plays a scene or a song with simplicity, but most of the time she doesn’t trust the material.

For Bostonians who’ve already experienced Sunday in the Park, Chanler-Berat (the memorable Peter of Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher) is a complete reason for seeing it a second time. Mandy Patinkin’s George was a triumph of showmanship: when he got down on all fours to vocalize a conversation between a boatman’s mutt and a lady’s lapdog in “The Day Off,” the house went wild, and his impassioned rendition of “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim’s extraordinarily intimate portrait of the dedicated loneliness of making art, followed you right out of the theatre. But the musical-theatre Patinkin isn’t remotely like the one who’s been giving that amazing naturalistic performance on Homeland for the last four years; when he shows up in a musical he’s stylized as Joel Grey in Cabaret. Chanler-Berat attacks the part without all the show-biz. He may not have a choice – he’s not really a show singer like Barber, so when he performs “Finishing the Hat” or “Color and Light” or even “The Day Off,” he attacks them like an actor. He plays George as odd (justifying Dot’s description of him in the title number) in a way that we might find discomfiting if we walked into his studio or met him on the street, with an almost frightening intensity of focus, but in the course of the first act that almost-too-much quality draws us in. I found him most affecting in “Beautiful,” George’s lovely duet with his mother, where he answers her nostalgia for an older Paris by explaining what’s beautiful about change. (It’s also Steinbach’s best moment; Chanler-Berat and the feelings in the song ground her.) As Chanler-Berat sings the number, George’s love of beauty is mixed with a rare instance of tenderness toward another human being – the impulse that Dot always complains is missing in him. The song that precedes “Beautiful” is his duet with Dot, “We Do Not Belong Together,” in which Sondheim shows equal compassion for both characters, the woman who bemoans her lover’s refusal to communicate his feelings and the artist who insists, “You know exactly how I feel.” (Charming as Dot is, this is the only time in the musical when Sondheim isn’t unreservedly on Seurat’s side.) The sweetness Chanler-Berat’s George displays with his mother in “Beautiful” builds on his anger and impatience with Dot in the previous number and opens up another side of the character. This actor is the real thing. I hope we get to see a lot more of him.

Sunday in the Park with George at Boston's Huntington Theatre continues through October 16.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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