A New “Sunday in the Park With George”…All Shimmer and Light

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Musical Re-Imagined


Published: Febrary 14, 2008

Season after season, landmark musicals are revived on Broadway, and nearly every time they are slammed for seeming like clones of the originals. These shows (think “A Chorus Line” or “Les Miz”) feel as if they have been reconstructed, piece by dusty, dated piece, with not a single original element in sight. Director Sam Buntrock’s  stirring, inventive new production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” on the other hand, escapes this fate by brilliantly re-imagining this Sondheim-Lapine creation rather than simply reviving it.

“Sunday in the Park with George” Act I, which takes places from 1884 to 1886, follows a Georges Seurat who, consumed by the creation of his latest painting, “Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” ignores and then loses his mistress (and model) Dot.   Act II, set 100 years later, follows George and Dot’s great-grandson (also called George), as he faces the same artistic and personal struggles as his grandfather.  At heart, this show is an exploration of the creative process and what the artist might have to give up to pursue his craft.

“White.  A blank page or canvas…so many possibilities…”   Taking a cue from these closing lines of the show, Buntrock and the creative team of this new production have metaphorically ripped up the ’84 Tony award-winning original set plans and drawings, beginning completely anew.  The original production of “Sunday” debuted with what was, at the time, considered an amazing set, using old-fashioned pulleys, flats, fly space, trap rooms and traditional theater techniques to their greatest advantage to create the island of La Grande Jatte.  The creative team of this new production leaves almost all old-school set elements behind, using brand-new animation and projection techniques to let their imaginations run wild in bringing to the stage the experience of an artist drawing, creating something new before our eyes.

As Act I opens, green bleeds into the blank floor, until, suddenly—grass. An invisible hand draws lines of charcoal that appear on the white background, take on color and become water, trees and boats.  In Act II, the projections are used to astonishing effect to create George’s (great-grandson of George and Dot) Seurat-inspired “Chromolume #7.”  Dot’s daughter, Marie, sings of her grandson’s work, “You should have seen it.  It was a sight. All color and light.”  We too feel this as we watch the Chromolume’s light show unfold.   The pointillist-like laser show escapes the boundaries of the proscenium, making us feel as if we might become enveloped in a shower of color and light.

Georges Seurat’s enormous, pointillist masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is both the inspiration for and the actual setting for this musical.  The numerous figures Seurat captured spending their Sunday in the park come to life as the cast of characters in this play.  The entire show is in fact a walking, talking painting, so there is nothing (except perhaps the acting) more important to this musical than the set.  For these innovative, breath-taking set designs to truly “perform” their magic though, the performances of the leading actors needed to be equally powerful; after all, it is George who creates the mesmerizing painting and Dot who inspires him.  And the two Brits, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who take on the pair of roles, do not disappoint.

Since “Sunday in the Park with George” has never enjoyed a Broadway revival until now, for fans of the show, there is only one George and one Dot:  Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.  However, while the performances of the two original stars never quite leave one’s mind, Evans and Russell bring these two characters to stage in their own distinct, equally moving way. Where the original American performances were replete with mugging, over-enunciating and broad comedic gestures, in this British version, the characters feel more like people who could have truly existed. They are conceived as more vulnerable and more three-dimensional in a sense, when compared to their counterparts in the 1984 version.

Recently, London’s West End has been home to a number of highly innovative Sondheim revivals.  John Doyle caught the theater world’s attention when he took “Sweeney Todd” (and then “Company” and now “Merrily We Roll Along”) into new territory—firing the orchestra, handing the performers instruments and deconstructing the sets to the point where they are barely recognizable.   But director Sam Buntrock’s “Sunday” goes beyond clever (though successful) theatrical gimmicks and takes this show somewhere truly exhilarating.  As Marie says of her grandson’s work, so can we say of Buntrock’s re-imaginings and theatrical innovations, “the things that he does, they twinkle and shimmer and buzz.”