There’s no more exquisite contemplation of the solitude of the artist than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” Bringing equal lucidity on thematic, narrative and musical fronts as it navigates the difficult path toward “order, design, composition, balance, light and harmony,” this is a work of complexity and haunting self-exposure. The show illuminates the creation of art as an isolating process — perhaps toughest of all on the people who love and are loved by the artist — then goes on to illustrate how art takes on a life of its own, continuing to resonate long after the act of creation is complete.
“Connect, George. Connect,” the title character tells himself. That pivotal challenge has been heeded by British director Sam Buntrock, whose meticulously thought-through revival (originally produced at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 and later transferred to the West End) brings the 1984 musical back to Broadway for the first time, carrying an exhilarating emotional charge.
While the memory of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in Lapine’s original production remains indelible, the handsomely mounted Roundabout transfer casts a fresh mold with its superlative leads, both of them repeating their roles from London.
Daniel Evans brings moving intensity and a febrile punctiliousness that’s almost painful to watch as both 19th-century French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his great-grandson George, a contemporary American multimedia artist.
As his aptly named mistress, Dot, and later as her elderly emigre daughter Marie, Jenna Russell is incandescent. Her songs are fine-grained character portraits, bristling with humor, unpretentious wisdom and bittersweet sadness in Dot and Marie’s honest assessments of both artists as men. Her interpretation of the climactic “Move On,” in particular, has an emotional purity that’s as transporting for the audience as it is for George, infusing the artist with the joy of connectedness — in art and heart — that has eluded him through two lives.
From the first flashes of light that accompany Sondheim’s opening chords — as a charcoal stroke slashes the back wall of designer David Farley’s ingenious blank-canvas, skewed-perspective set and details are rapidly sketched in by Timothy Bird’s CGI projections — there’s an absolute assurance and thrilling synthesis of creative vision in evidence here.
It’s clearly no coincidence that Buntrock has a background in animation, allowing him to get inside the act of creating visual art to a degree perhaps impossible with a traditional design approach.
While it has removed the limitations of what can be naturalistically rendered onscreen, digital technology has also been responsible for significant losses in the artisanship and magic of moviemaking. And its use in theater is still at an experimental stage, more successful in hybrid form with conventional 3-D elements than when used alone, as in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hard-to-watch “The Woman in White.” The collaboration between Buntrock and Bird not only balances technical precision with grace and whimsy, it also makes perfect narrative sense. It’s an intelligent extension of the show’s themes, not just a visual accessory.
That cohesion of purpose and form deftly echoes Sondheim’s own achievement in finding a musical correlative both to creating art in general and to the idiosyncratic style of his chief subject.
The early songs are fragmented and chatty, their search for a fluid rhythm cleverly matching the piece-by-piece crystallization of Seurat’s Pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The private lives of the iconic painting’s promenading figures are glimpsed almost in defiance of George’s emotional detachment, yet to the artist, they remain anonymous elements to be rearranged according to his obsessive vision. Heartbreakingly, even Dot and the child George refuses to acknowledge are kept at the same distance.
As the picture’s components come together, the songs steadily acquire more body: George yearns to make connections in “Finishing the Hat”; his mother (the sublime Mary Beth Peil) laments change in “Beautiful” while her son urges her to see beauty everywhere; and the completion of the canvas brings a corresponding swell from hushed wonderment through glorious, surging harmony in “Sunday.”
In that breathtaking act-one closer, Buntrock and his matchless, double-cast ensemble (including such accomplished performers as Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Molaskey and Alexander Gemignani) do full justice to one of the defining moments in contemporary musical theater, nodding to Tony Straiges’ original design of cutouts and pop-ups while using technology to deepen the audience’s participation in the creative process.
The fast-forward shift from 1880s Paris to America a century later also receives a stunning assist from Bird’s digital design, and it’s in the 1984-set second act that Buntrock’s success in breathing new totality into Sondheim and Lapine’s diptych becomes evident.
While the show’s frame of reference extends to all artists, the parallels between the composer and both Georges are startling. The choice of unconventional subject matter, the refusal to be ruled by commercial instincts, the charges of being remote and cerebral, the ambivalent relationship with critics, the compromises and thankless schmoozing required to secure funding, the challenges of collaboration — these considerations make “Sunday in the Park” the most transparently confessional of Sondheim’s works.
It’s a difficult but infinitely rewarding musical of disparate elements that combine to achieve true harmony, bringing passionate insight to the relationship between art, artists and audience, and to the boundless possibilities of art itself. The clarity and depth of understanding in this revival make it an experience to be savored.