Pointillist artist Georges Seurat painted large canvases using tiny specks of complementary colors, forcing the eye to connect the dots. Making connections is the central theme of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical about Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George. And director Eric Schaeffer's Kennedy Center production not only connects with the audience, it achieves another important connection as well.
More than the original 1983 production, more than the 1997 revival Schaeffer directed at Washington's Arena Stage, this new production links the disparate elements of the show's two acts, making them feel inextricably connected at the same time that it increases our understanding of both parts.
This is no small accomplishment in a musical whose first act is set in the 1880s, and whose second occurs a century later - a gap that runs the risk of turning the second half into a modern-day coda. In Act I, we see Seurat creating his masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." In Act II, we see Seurat's great-grandson, an American artist also named George, demonstrating his latest multimedia creation, "Chromolume #7," at a museum opening, and then struggling with blocked creativity.
Clearly, the two acts have some textual connections, and they are also designed to star the same actors - in this case an intense Raul Esparza as 19th- and 20th-century George, and lovely Melissa Errico as Seurat's fictional model, Dot, in Act I, and Dot's nonagenarian daughter, Marie, in Act II.
But Schaeffer sees to it that the bond goes deeper. Expanding on the thematic threads of the first act, the second act offers a commentary not only on connections (between life and art; individuals; past, present and future), but also on the ideas of originality and leaving an artistic legacy.
Nor are heightened themes the only hallmarks of this production. Any major work of art should be open to numerous stylistic interpretations, and seeing how the Kennedy Center productions re-interpret Sondheim's musicals is one of the joys of the summer-long Sondheim Celebration. However, designer Tony Straiges' set for the Broadway production of Sunday in the Park - which re-created the famous painting through a combination of scenery, pop-up props and actors - was so ingenious, any other interpretation seemed almost inconceivable.
Yet set designer Derek McLane has dared to be different, and though the result isn't as visually breathtaking, it is a bold and highly defensible rethinking. Like Schaeffer's overall approach, McLane's set enhances our understanding of the taciturn central character, a 19th-century artist about whom little is known except that he died at 31 leaving a small but groundbreaking body of work.
Instead of showing Seurat on the Island of La Grand Jatte, McLane isolates him in his studio, where canvases on easels display details of the famous painting. When we get to the section where Seurat is painting the dogs in the foreground, he carries in canvases with sketches of dogs. When he doesn't like a tree, he carts that particular canvas offstage. "I am not hiding behind my canvas," Seurat says. "I am living in it." McLane's set reinforces the notion that he has no life outside it.
Working with projection designer Michael Clark, McLane also has found a logical solution to the problem of what type of 20th-century art Seurat's great-grandson creates. Though we don't get a full sense of them, it's apparent that "Chromolumes" translate Seurat's pointillist theory into pixels on video screens.
Part of the credit for the tightened link between the acts also belongs to the lead performers. There's a bond between Esparza and Errico - sensual and eventually heartbreaking when they portray lovers, and nurturing and affectionate when they are grandmother and grandson. Although Esparza muffles some of the lyrics, the couple delivers a poignant rendition of "We Do Not Belong Together," and even singing with the voice of a senior citizen, Errico exudes warmth in Marie's "Children and Art."
The other characters are background figures, but part of the fun is seeing the way personalities are attached to the anonymous figures in the painting, and then seeing their counterparts 100 years later. Cris Groenendaal, who plays a snooty, fashionable artist in the first act, segues easily into the role of a museum director in the second; similarly, Linda Stephens, as Seurat's standoffish mother, is transformed into an art critic in the next century.
There's a striking sense of ensemble among all the supporting actors, particularly in their precise choral work, under Rob Berman's musical direction. This is exemplified by "It's Hot Up Here," a number in which the use of staccato singing serves as the musical equivalent of pointillism.
"Art isn't easy," Sondheim states in a lyric to "Putting It Together," one of the show's songs that has led critics to regard this musical as a commentary on the composer's own creative process. Creating a musical about the creation of art - a largely private, internalized process - is a formidable task, and focusing on the visual as opposed to the performing arts makes it all the more so.
In his opening speech, Seurat expresses his greatest challenge; it's also the greatest challenge presented by this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical: "Bring order to the whole." With only minor exceptions, director Schaeffer has found that order.
To read J. Wynn Rousuck's interview with Stephen Sondheim, go to www.baltimoresun.com/sondheim.
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