"White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities..."
Director Matthew Gardiner brings to Signature Theatre's Max stage an outstanding production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George. A truly original work, inspired by the neo impressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, it is a lyrical love letter to the creation of art and the dangers of losing connection with humanity. The first act imagines the process of the creation of the painting, dot of paint by dot of paint. The subjects in the urban park setting are vividly imagined by Lapine and Sondheim and the tensions between the aloof artist, Georges Seurat and his fictional mistress, Dot ferry the audience through struggles and poignant realizations until at last the finished work is recreated in front of the audience.
Act two, which takes place one hundred years, later has always been problematic. The real George Seurat died at the age of 31 and his two known offspring died shortly thereafter. The musical gives us Dot's descendant, another artist named George who is struggling to find his artistic vision despite a good deal of success with his computerized chromolume series. It takes the gentle persuasions of his grandmother, Marie, Seurat and Dot's daughter to convince her grandson that recognizing what matters most, "Children and Art" will lead him to find his artistic vision as his great grandfather did, by starting over with a blank canvas.
In previous productions, act two has been the less satisfying section of this musical. It takes a revelatory performance by Brynn O'Malley who doubles as Dot and Marie to show the possibilities of this act's redemptive qualities. Ms. O'Malley is feisty as Dot the artist's muse, who yearns for real love and connection with the cool, almost unemotional Seurat. Yet, it is as the 98 year-old Marie that Ms. O'Malley truly shines. Her Marie is unequivocal in her belief in her family history and ties to the Sunday Afternoon painting. Ms. O'Malley's rendition of "Children and Art" is very soft spoken, yet she draws the audience in letting us learn the life lessons Marie wishes her grandson to learn. One should expect Ms. O'Malley to be remembered come Helen Hayes Award time.
Clybourne Elder acts the dual George(s) roles well. His voice is occasionally ragged as if straining. Yet he is clearly capable of the vocal range necessary for the part. The problem seems to be that by acting the music so well Mr. Elder is not getting adequate support making one worry about his stamina over the run of the production. That said, he marvelously embodies the emotionally distant Georges Seurat and the less aloof, yearning for new artistic expression George the grandson.
The rest of the ensemble is well cast. Standouts include Paul Scanlan as the gruff boatman and the technical wizard Dennis and the always delightful Donna Migliacchio as the Old Lady and Elaine.
Daniel Conway's scenic design is fluid marrying well with Robbie Hayes projection design and Frank Labovitz's costumes. Jon Kalbfleisch's musical direction brings harmony between his acting ensemble and the eleven piece orchestra under his steady baton.
This is an emotionally satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George. Do not miss this chance to be re-acquainted with this masterpiece.
Sunday in the Park with George is being performed in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA through September 21, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit signature-theatre.org.