Thursday, February 21, 2008


Art Isn't Easy

By Josh R
When something is described as being interesting, it’s usually in the spirit of a backhanded compliment. If you ask a theatergoer point-blank whether or not they liked a particular show, and the query is met with a hedging response of “It was interesting,” it essentially boils down to a no. This should in no way mitigate the fact that, in most cases, the book or play under discussion is, in point of truth, quite interesting (it’s one of those nifty all-purpose words that can be applied in any number of different contexts — Hegel’s Theory of Dialectic is interesting, and so is a train wreck). Unless you’re the kind of person who wonders why The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persists in nominating boring, talky movies as opposed to those which can actually hold your attention — and if you’re of the persuasion that Transformers was hands down the best picture of 2007, you belong in this category — you’re not going to balk at the kind of artistic enterprise that requires you to think. That being said, the theater is more than just a classroom, and not unlike the millions of moviegoers who flooded multiplexes nationwide for the simple pleasure of witnessing big CGI-generated robots beating the hell out of one another, theater audiences are looking to respond to what they see on more than a purely intellectual level.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical receiving its first major Broadway revival under the auspices of The Roundabout Theatre Company, labors mightily to fit the bill, and its intentions are strictly honorable. If it comes up short, the result is still, as you may have already guessed, interesting.

There is a lot to like and still more to admire about the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine-penned work, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama at the time of its premiere and has endured as a favorite of repertory companies and college theater departments in the years to follow. It’s reappearance on Broadway after an absence of more than two decades may even come as welcome relief to musical theater audiences who have had their fill of the cotton candy they’ve been force-fed since last summer; so far, the season’s three new musical offerings (if they can be called “new”) have been Xanadu, Young Frankenstein and Grease! Those hungering for a tuner offering actual substance need look no further than Studio 54, where the first-rate production of Sunday in the Park with George helmed by 32-year-old British wunderkind Sam Buntrock opens today. The attributes that accounted for its critical popularity back in 1984 are still very much in evidence; it is original, challenging, and yes (I promise not to say it again), interesting. As to whether or not these qualities add up to a great work of theater — well, no. In the second act, an elderly woman advises her struggling grandson to rely on “a little less thinking, a little more feeling” in the creation of his art — counsel that Sunday in the Park’s creators respect in theory, if not in practice.

The show is essentially a consideration of the artistic process and its peculiar challenges, with the 19th century painter Georges (or, if you prefer the anglicized version, George) Seurat serving as a stand-in for Sondheim himself. The first act chronicles the creation of “Sunday Afternoon on The Island of La Grande Jatte,” the neo-impressionist masterpiece which took more than two years to paint and was initially met with a decidedly less-than-enthusiastic response by the artistic establishment. While observing the painstaking process that went into the creation of the painting, Sondheim and Lapine contend that Seurat’s obsessive devotion to his craft consumed him to extent that he had nothing left to give to the people in his life — specifically, to his vivacious mistress and muse, Dot, who eventually leaves him when she realizes that their relationship will always come second to his work. The second act, which is set in the present day, examines the personal and creative crisis experienced by Seurat’s great-grandson, also named George, a post-modern artist specializing in elaborate light installations that are high on commercial appeal but short on inspiration. By returning to the Island of La Grande Jatte and encountering the spirit of Dot, who gives him the musical equivalent of a pep talk, George resolves to trust his artistic impulses and take risks, regardless of whether or not his efforts are understood and appreciated by the commercial establishment or the world at large.

If the basic premise doesn’t suggest much in the way of entertainment value, that’s probably true of any high-concept work of theater where the drama basically exists in service to the expression of ideas. The problem with Sunday in the Park with George isn’t that it fails as a work of entertainment (it succeeds, albeit fitfully); the difficulty stems from the fact that the creators approach their subject in a way that feels dryly academic, even when they’re trying to imbue it with emotional resonance. When I reviewed the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Company last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which John Doyle’s brilliant staging raised my opinion of the show itself. While Buntrock’s production deserves all the praise it will inevitably receive, it doesn’t make a case for Sunday in the Park with George as a work of theater that works as theater. Ultimately, not even the best rendering has the power to transform a washed-out watercolor — admittedly one executed with fine, painterly strokes — into a vibrant impressionist masterpiece.

The general consensus has always been that the first act is the stronger of the two, which is not to say it doesn’t have its share of weaknesses. There is something very coldly analytical in the way that Sondheim and Lapine methodically break Seurat’s painting down to its basic components, addressing each element in turn, and then slapping them back together again (it’s almost like watching the assembly of jigsaw puzzle by someone whose interest in jigsaw puzzles is purely scientific). Rather than bringing each figure to three-dimensional life, they provide us with only the skeletal outline of personalities; these people hold no real interest for George except as things he can use to put in his painting, and that’s pretty much how the composer and librettist view them as well (the flatness of Lapine’s dialogue doesn’t help matters much). Similarly, the main characters don’t really register as more than impressionist sketches, less flesh-and-blood characters than somewhat amorphous shapes composed of color and light. Dot tells us that she loves George, while George hints in his own, somewhat oblique way that he loves Dot — but the relationship is not fleshed out in a way that would seem to support either contention. The two characters remain separate and distinct entities, occupying the same space but curiously disconnected throughout the entirety of the first act. The effect may be by design, since George’s passion is reserved for his painting, but it makes it difficult to feel emotionally invested in the conflict.

The second act, which in previous productions has always seemed a bit of a tacked-on afterthought, has more resonance in the context of this production than it did in the original, but still creates a bit of a chill. Certainly, Sunday in the Park with George is Sondheim’s response to critics of his work — those who charge with being too high-fillutin’ for his own good — but how can you tender such a stern repudiation of art which is purely cerebral within the framework of a show that is so purely cerebral? Some have suggested that the show is basically Sondheim’s defense of his own loner status and inability to forge lasting “love” relationships, but if so, what exactly is he trying to communicate to the audience in that regard? That the relationship between artist and his work must take precedence over interpersonal contact in order for the art to matter? The character of Dot reappears at the end and seems to be telling George “I understand now why you shut me out, and I applaud you for it” — but if that’s the case, how does one account for the second act’s implicit suggestion that the younger George’s art is suffering precisely because of the fact that he has isolated himself from those closest to him?

In a way, it’s almost appropriate that the human element takes a back seat to the technical wizardry on display in Buntrock’s staging; using an innovative mixed-media approach involving breathtaking lighting effects and computer animation, the stage transforms itself in a manner that truly does suggest an artist’s canvas teeming with life. The actors make less of an impression, but serve the demands of their roles, albeit in qualified ways. The Olivier-winning stars of Buntrock’s original London staging at The Mernier Chocolate Factory have crossed the pond to reprise their roles at Studio 54, and while both deliver impressive performances, neither really seems ideally suited to his or her role. The slight, bright-eyed Daniel Evans is too boyish a presence for the remote, guarded George of Act One — in the second, he’s downright sprightly (while he’s bouncing around the stage for “Putting It Together”, the ADD mothers in the audience may find themselves inadvertently reaching into their purses for the Ritalin). Mandy Patinkin, the role’s originator, came across as a bit of a gloomy drone, but at least managed to convey the intense self-absorption of someone unable to make room for anyone else in his own little world; Evans’ George seems more like the sort of guy a girl could fall in love with, but is not particularly convincing as the kind a woman would have no choice but to walk out on. Jenna Russell’s singing voice sounds to an uncanny degree like that of Bernadette Peters, who created the role of Dot in 1984; the effect is a little unsettling, especially when coupled with a flowery north-English accent. From an acting perspective, Russell is slightly more credible as a woman experiencing an emotional crisis — Ms. Peters is the type of performer who has always seemed more comfortable with personality-driven comedy than in character-driven drama — but she doesn’t have the brash element of showmanship that her predecessor brought to the part. Ms. Peters’ insouciant Broadway-baby spark, while entirely at odds with the tone of the show in which it was featured, provided the original Sunday with its only real flashes of energy; paradoxically, with a better actress in the role, the character doesn't register as strongly as before. These considerations aside, Russell and Evans do complement each other in the way that the role’s originators — who often seemed to be performing in two very different shows — didn’t quite manage. They don’t really have any more chemistry than Patinkin and Peters did, but they do a better job of fleshing out their roles, and bring something more specific to the flimsy, rather generic psychology on which their character arcs are based. The supporting cast, which includes Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Molaskey, Mary Beth Peil and Alexander Gemignani, bring some welcome flourishes of originality to the cardboard characters they are playing, but are reigned in by the limitations of their roles.

Sondheim cultists never tire of praising the show’s score, which is lush and melodic even if its use of discordant harmonies is likely to drive old-school showtune lovers bonkers. Musically, it isn’t as memorable as some of Sondheim’s earlier works — the recurring motifs grow repetitive quickly, and his attempts to approximate Seurat’s pointillistic style in musical terms are too literal-minded by half — but the lyrics are, as always, meticulously crafted and astonishingly clever. Despite the pleasures of Buntrock’s fluid production, which is as pleasing visually as it is musically, one can’t quite shake the sense that the show, like its protagonist, is keeping emotion at arm’s length. “You’re an artist, not a scientist,” a friend admonishes the intransigent hero midway through the first act. Sunday in the Park with George is a far cry from painting-by-the-numbers — it’s much too inventive and unique to be charged with anything of the kind — but in spite of the obvious thought and care that went into its creation, it stops well short of being a great work of art.

But it’s certainly interesting.

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The only production I've seen is the PBS version of the original but unlike other Sondheim shows, even listening to the score alone has always left me a little cold. Other flawed Sondheim shows at least have the scores to carry them, but I don't really think Sunday even has that. It's too ambitious for its own good.
This is the one I think of when I hear people complain about all the problems they find with Sondheim. I really didn't care for it when I saw it on PBS, and besides Putting it Together, I can't say I find the score worth listening to. At least there's no Send in the Clowns, though. That's always worth something.

Whenever artists answer their critics with art, it usually supports every criticism they're arguing against. Stop it!!
Wow Josh (your name is Josh..see, I learn) - two for two! You have expressed so eloquently exactly what I thought/felt about two of the shows I saw during my week in NYC.
Now if you can just write up August: Osage County, we will be all set. Please get on that! Thanks :)
I've been waiting to see his August: Osage County review too ever since he named its ensemble the best acting of 2007.
I gotta see August again - mainly for my own enjoyment's sake - but also because I don't feel I can do it any justice until I've seen it twice. Be patient.
If SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is going to work at all, you need to have really interesting and exciting people in the cast. And this revival simply does not have them. Daniel Evans plays Georges Seurat like a particularly strident schoolmaster from the Harry Potter films, brisk and efficient with Teddibly Precise Enunciation. I kept expecting him to take ten points from Dot. He plays George in Act Two like a bizarrely over-eager chipmunk, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and gender neutral. Jenna Russell seems to have been directed to play Dot like one of the maids in MARY POPPINS: cutesy British ooo-er guv energy and not even the barest whisper of anything even remotely resembling the slightest possible whiff of sexuality. Her pregnancy in Act One had me waiting for the appearance of Three Wise Men. The rest of the cast, unforgivably in a supposedly major revival, fade into a blur of costumes, with only Michael Cumpsty standing out for the really first-rate Jim Broadbent impression he uses to walk through Act One.

All of this is terribly disappointing, especially to one who saw the original production which featured the sublime Bernadette Peters and such splendid actors as Dana Ivey, Nancy Opel, Charles Kimbrough, and Barbara Bryne. Even Danielle Ferland made an impression as the little girl. No one but no one in this production comes within several hundred miles of approaching the original cast. This is appalling but it must be said: I never ever thought I would compare anyone unfavorably with Mandy Patinkin.

And to make matters even worse: the orchestra for this revival has been reduced to a mere 5 musicians. What should be gorgeous is now merely tinny. And the vocals are no help, generally flat and uninspired. For my money there are few things as beautiful in this world as the great Act One closer "Sunday," but it simply didn't come together here. The singing was muddy, the lyrics were too often unintelligible, and what should have been a tear-inducing marvel was a flat bit of academic arrangement and fancy digital projections.
In July '84, after standing in line to buy tickets to see 'Sunday' for the first time exactly one week later at the following Wednesday matinee, the theatre doors opened letting the crowd out for intermission. Not being able to resist, I stole up to the balcony and watched the second act from there. Perhaps having seen the final act first is why I was able to see the original as two halves of a balanced whole. There comes the moment near the end of the last act to which the entire musical builds: a simple four notes and the words accompanying them, "George is alone." I remember the entire audience around me (myself included) overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment and bursting into tears. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for what may have been a perfect performance; I saw it six time more up to the closing performance and had a similar experience only when Mandy Patinkin performed together with Bernadette Peters. So, my judgement of 'Sunday' stems from witnessing what the 'authors' wished to achieve in all of its analytical and emotional complexity and left me feeling, to this day, that I had seen, heard, and felt a true work of art.
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