Since its 1984 premiere, the Pulitzer-winning but Tony-losing “Sunday in the Park With George” has polarized audiences: Some applaud it as a brilliant distillation of the agony of the artist, others demur that its commitment to the fusion of art and heart is more talked about than realized. The uneven Reprise! revival helmed by Jason Alexander won’t persuade the skeptics, but those in the former camp will find some things to enjoy, some things to regret and a lot to talk about.
With so much blank canvas to fill, who has time to fill in the spaces of a blank life? It was Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s master stroke to turn 19th-century pointillist Georges Seurat’s Herculean efforts to complete “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” — along with the efforts of his new-media artist great-grandson, a century later, to escape an artistic dead end — into a metaphor for the age-old struggle to balance everyday existence with the agony and ecstasy of obsession.
Show’s definition of artist, as anyone consumed by a particular passion, is broad enough to encompass all of us everyday stiffs, not just the genius Van Goghs and Seurats — assuming, that is, we can see ourselves within Lapine and Sondheim’s complex, quasi-pointillistic skein of word, music and image.
In this regard, some of Alexander’s bold production choices yield act-one dividends. Bradley Kaye’s dozen or so periaktoi — tall, three-sided set pieces on wheels, each side with a differently painted panel — are configured to evoke both the various locations around La Grande Jatte and the sheets of the sketch pad on which Seurat (Manoel Felciano) captures the people inhabiting them.
With the space thus broken up to suggest trees and barriers, we can empathize with George as master manipulator as he moves from pocket to pocket, and identify with the character subplots that are brought into greater relief (though one wishes they were played more soberly and truthfully, rather than pushing for laughs that don’t come).
Less felicitous is the insistence that all the panels, and Bethany Jane Bohatila and Heather Carleton’s white-and-sepia-toned costumes, mimic Seurat’s charcoal-on-white sketchbook. Visual monotony results and the first-act finale, when all the painting’s pieces fall into place, is a letdown.
Jason H. Thompson’s lights can only do so much to brighten an essential wash of muslin, and lowering a framed reproduction of the actual, vibrant artwork just reminds us of what we’re not seeing.
Felciano is somewhat drained of color, too, though not when he sings. His haunting Tobias in last year’s Gotham “Sweeney Todd” was wound tight as a spring, but his Seurat (and act-two George) are oddly soft and even diffident. Only in his soliloquies (Felciano’s “Finishing the Hat,” and one-man dog duet, may be close to definitive) do we see the anguished genius at war with himself.
Even less effective is Kelli O’Hara as Dot, George’s mistress, whose offer of happiness must be hardest for Seurat to reject. Winsome and lilting in virginal roles, O’Hara possesses no air of either the common or the carnal, two non-negotiable traits for this character. Beatific where she needs to be tart, wispy where she should be a fury, she leaves the production with no representative of the primal life force to whom the crabbed George can react.
Treatment of the much-maligned but essential second act is a mixed bag. The costumes gain full color, but the dot motif is overdone to a carnival extreme in the garb of the painting’s figures, and the modern clothes lack style.
Most of the ensemble is up to its overacting tricks, though Sean Smith and the incomparable Nancy Dussault offer show’s two most honest and fleshed-out performances as, respectively, George’s long-suffering tech geek and the snooty art critic who at first celebrated and now dismisses him.
The magic truly happens when George returns to La Grande Jatte in search of great-granddad’s elusive spark of inspiration. The mismatched periaktoi panels convey the dismaying urban sprawl of Paris, with one tree on one panel a lonely remnant of the beauty that was. The modern ugliness is a perfect counterpoint to the fiery idealism of George’s “Moving On” duet with the ghostly Dot (O’Hara’s beatific quality at last appropriate to the moment), which they nail.
The “order … balance … harmony” that both Georges seek in their art aren’t found everywhere in this production, but even their fitful appearances remind us of how transporting the musical theater, at its best, can be.