Sam Buntrock’s transfixing production of “Sunday in the Park With George” gives the lie to those who have leveled much the same accusations over the decades at Stephen Sondheim as get hurled at Georges Seurat, the Pointillist master who died age 31 and on whose life this landmark musical is based. Ravenously emotional and exquisitely if surprisingly cast in its demanding central roles, the first London “Sunday” in 15 years marks another bold step forward for the fast-ascending Menier Chocolate Factory.
The received wisdom about “Sunday” is that its first act is a near-complete show unto itself that gets complicated, not always satisfyingly, by the modern stuff after intermission, when its anguished hero learns to “move on.” Well, think again. As reimagined by the 30-year-old Buntrock with a quiet bravado sure to shoot him up London’s theatrical food chain, the two halves of James Lapine’s book seem as mutually necessary and intertwined as Sondheim’s defiant artistic impulse is bound up with the visionary at his musical’s core. “They have never understood/And no reason why they should,” sings Seurat in a staging that could hardly be more lucid.
Buntrock’s legerdemain is inseparable from the design team of David Farley (sets), Natasha Chivers and Mike Robertson (lighting) and, most singularly, the CGI work of projection designer Timothy Bird and coordinator Malcolm Mellows. Those still pondering the sense of grafting a woozy Imax travelogue on the Victorian trills of “The Woman in White” will get a comeuppance of sorts here.
As ever, the issue isn’t the technology itself but the use to which it is put. And as Seurat in act one interacts with the canvas of his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” coming wittily to life, so in act two does the American conceptual artist George (Daniel Evans plays both roles) for once emerge, through his experiments with color and light, as a genuinely possible inheritor of his great-grandfather’s bequest.
The design allows hints of the aesthetic project of the American George in the achievements of his Parisian forebear, which in turn links the two acts well before Dot (Anna Jane Casey), Seurat’s lover and muse, reappears in act two to set the modern-day George on his way.
Not for the first time in London, a Sondheim musical shows unexpected colors as an intricately crafted play — even if this one is better sung than is sometimes the London norm, Sondheim’s score reorchestrated for a band of five by Jason Carr. (Casey, in particular, is a warm and stirring presence.)
Some of the supporting roles acquire unusually bold relief. Joanne Redman is in easeful, firm voice as the nurse who tends to Seurat’s mother on that “ordinary Sunday.” Simon Green brings a droll authority to rival painter Jules in the first act and then, in the second, to Bob Greenberg, one of the cultural piranhas busy crowding out George’s self-worth. (In one amusing projection, the art is all but subsumed by an onslaught of gallery habitues, the work itself presumably less important than the swells desperate to see it.)
The production delivers where most needed, starting with the frisson that always accompanies the first-act curtain, when a rancorous assemblage comes together into a visually and musically harmonious whole.
But even more than at Sondheim’s frequent London home, the Donmar, the smaller Menier focuses attention in a way ideally suited to this particular show. Just as Seurat moved from each individual dot to a larger visual synthesis and back again, this “Sunday” delivers up one telling detail after another while keeping the broader picture clearly in view. You quietly mourn with Seurat, who shifts an empty stool previously occupied by Dot, even as you await the catharsis available to his progeny a century later, thanks to a woman who has stepped out of the painting — and out of time.
Casey makes a consistently sweet, spry Dot, but her perf is nowhere more affecting than in her stooped second-act guise as the 98-year-old Marie, grandmother to George. Delivering a “Children and Art” to rival that of Bernadette Peters, thesp in one swoop draws the audience virtually inside the red book containing both the key to Seurat’s canvas and the words that might put her self-doubting 32-year-old heir right.
An Olivier winner for the Donmar “Merrily We Roll Along,” Evans is in some ways an unlikely George but also an unforgettable one. His singing considerably stronger here, the Welshman finds a narrow-eyed intensity in Seurat that seems visibly to soften by the time of the final reprise of “Sunday,” where a blank canvas seems newly, infinitely hopeful. Seurat’s agitation replaced by something approaching serenity and calm, Evans’ George doesn’t merely sing of “order” and “harmony,” he comes to embody it, as if the light paving his onward creative path had lodged itself deeply, ineffably within the artist.