Watching paint dry (literally) in the Stephen Sondheim classic, Sunday in the Park with George, reveals the theatricality that is often hidden in visual art. In Act I of this Roundabout presentation from Britian’s Menier Chocolate Factory, we watch French painter Georges Seurat paint his mistress, forget to see her except on canvas, focus so intently on his ground-breaking pointillist technique — an offshoot of Impressionism that, like contemporary digital photography, uses dots of color, trusting the eye to blend the desired shade — that he loses sight of all else. While we watch, he creates his most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The computer animation bringing the canvases to life, done by director Sam Buntrock (a trained animator), and the precise projections by Timothy Bird keep the “still” out of life, but threaten to overpower Sondheim’s complex melodies and incisive lyrics. Mistress/model Dot (ha) sings, in the song ‘Color and Light’, “What is he thinking when he looks like that?” George: “…And red and purple and white.”
Finding the balance between inhabiting life and building a life is hard work for everyone, not just artists. The drama may be quiet, but it’s all too real. The five-piece chamber orchestra sitting in the balcony, conducted by Caroline Humphris, underscores the story with exquisite restraint.
Act II takes us to 1984 (the debut was in 1983), when Seurat’s (fictional) great-grandson George has become a trendy New York artist who makes “chromolumes” but fears he’s lost his way. As George in both acts, Daniel Evans’ wide smile and affecting voice make you understand the appeal of a man so remote. As Dot in Act I and elderly Marie, Dot’s daughter, in Act II, Jenna Russell’s expressive voice and wise sweetness are deeply touching. Act I is perfect, but it’s Act II that breaks your heart and puts it back together. When figures in the painting bow and forgive, they inspire young George — and the audience.