Taking Sam Buntrock’s dazzlingly reimagined production of Sondheim and Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George” from an SRO run at the 169-seat Menier Chocolate Factory and putting it up among the big boys was a serious gamble. Surely, part of the production’s appeal — its triumphant animation of so huge a visual and aural canvas in such an intimate space — would be lost in the transfer to a 700-seat house? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the West End: The show got even better.
When rival painter Jules (urbane Simon Green) and his wife (disarmingly perceptive Liza Sadovy) visit the studio of revolutionary pointillist artist George Seurat (Daniel Evans) to see his giant masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Seurat tells Jules to stand back so he can see the work properly. That turns out to be a metaphor for this entire staging.
Naturally enough for a drama about what happens within a picture, the show gains immense definition from being framed within a proscenium arch. It’s all about perspective, which, ironically, Seurat was derided for removing from his paintings. The entire set — which seems more spacious than before — is the artist’s canvas, and sitting further away from Timothy Bird’s projections allows them to make even more of an effect.
As the suspense-filled opening arpeggio rings out across the silence, a single charcoal pencil line dashes across the plain white walls of David Farley’s set. This arresting stroke is only the beginning. Buntrock and his design team have a vast palette of painterly and filmic effects at their disposal. Dissolves, wipes and splashes of lush color and light vividly conjure the creative process of making a painting while complementing characters’ moving effortlessly out and back into the canvas.
As before, the triumph of this reinterpretation is its use of animation and projection to tie together what have traditionally been regarded as two similarly themed but dramatically disconnected acts.
The one weakness in the physical re-staging is the second-act scene where young George’s groundbreaking new work “Chromolume No. 7” is revealed. At the Chocolate Factory, the focus was not on the art work itself, but on the decidedly mixed reactions of the assembled art critics and gallery crowd. That allowed auds to believe they were watching the latest work by a potential genius going unrecognized. Seeing the actual less-than-groundbreaking video piece from the further vantage point of the Wyndham’s auditorium makes it hard to believe George really is gifted.
That problem is compounded by the overly deliberate pace of the following number, which sees George working the room so as to fund his work in “Putting It Together.” Slowing the number down means the audience is ahead of the action and waiting for the show to catch up. The use of technology here is particularly impressive, with George interacting with projections of himself, but the tension flags.
Such short-term problems, together with some imprecise lighting, disappear beneath the evening’s spine-tingling intensity. All the cast members re-create their roles with one outstanding change. Jenna Russell, a beautifully innocent and plucky Sarah Brown in the first cast of Michael Grandage’s recent “Guys and Dolls,” has taken over from Anna-Jane Casey as Dot/Marie.
From the first bars of her opening song, it’s clear Russell is a singer who works from the drama up. She uses every note of the score to convey detailed moments of action and character. When her voice opens out on a long-held note, she’s conveying what the character is doing or thinking rather than, say, showing off the power of her vibrato.
The thrilling result of this is that it so raises Daniel Evans’ already mesmerizing game that the show is no longer about one man. Russell turns the show back into a powerfully affecting duet. Their full-blooded, exultant cry — “We will always belong together!” — is a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment.
The second line of the script is George’s invocation: “The challenge, bring order to the whole.” Harnessing writing as strong as this, the production not only does that, it creates a blueprint that enthrallingly allows auds to feel just how dramatically audacious, intellectually absorbing and emotionally rewarding musical theater can be.