By Jordan Wright (Photo/Christopher Mueller)
It has been 16 years since Signature Theatre, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, mounted Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Now, this production by director Matthew Gardiner casts Broadway stars Brynn O’Malley in the role of Dot and Claybourne Elder as George to bring to the stage this kaleidoscopic vision of the life of French artist Georges Seurat, known as George in the musical.
Based on an imaginative interpretation of the characters in Seurat’s iconic painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, the show opens onto the artist’s studio in Paris where a simple backdrop of light and dark colors echoes the 28 sketches Seurat made before completing his masterpiece. Seurat was exploring the new science of color dynamics and attempting to create a new art form at a time when his peers were deeply immersed in Impressionism.
Set in the latter part of the 19th century, the painting emerges as the vehicle and backdrop for a living picture of 15 subjects who step out of the painting and come to life to reveal their very human characteristics. Frank Labovitz’s period costumes of soft colors and subdued prints blend seamlessly with the muted colors found in the painting.
As George taps dots onto the canvas, his model and paramour Dot poses with her parasol held aloft, echoing her prominent role in the painting. She is frustrated by the heat, her constricting attire and his lack of interest, but in the song “Color and Light,” we become aware that his obsession trumps all romance. Then, in “We Do Not Belong Together,” they become resigned early on to abandon their love. He proves she is right in “Finishing the Hat”, in which he sacrifices their time together for his art. Elder must give a tightly wound, highly controlled portrayal of the emotionally disconnected artist, which he does convincingly, while O’Malley counterbalances it with her playing of a lithely lyrical Dot.
Daniel Conway’s set design reflects the artist’s struggle to achieve a sense of order, design, and balance, and he enforces that passion by eliminating and then reintroducing silk-screened trees, dogs and a lone monkey in the background according to George’s indecisiveness.
The Boatman, played marvelously by Paul Scanlan, comes to life as a smarmy low life who likes to terrify frolicking children when he is not insulting George. Mitchell Hebert is Jules, a fellow artist and staunch critic of George’s new art. Together with his wife Yvonne (Valerie Leonard) and the American couple Mr. (Dan Manning) and Mrs. (Maria Egler), they provide brisk and hilarious diversion.
By Act Two we have left the Victorian era and are transplanted into the present day. George’s great grandson is unveiling a light machine called a “Chromolume” at a swanky Paris gallery, and in the song “Putting It Together” he schmoozes with well-heeled patrons hoping they will underwrite his invention.
This is where Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever really displays her wizardry in a spectacular array of whirling pointillist beams of light and swirling primary colors. Accompanying her grandson is George’s wheelchair-bound mother, also played by O’Malley, who sings the poignant tune, “Children and Art”, a tenderly wrought and exquisitely sung number that will rip your heart out.
In all, this production is not to be missed. The superb cast brilliantly portrays one of Georges Seurat’s most famous works. As the summer fades into fall, take a step into 19th century Paris and watch as a painting comes to life before your very eyes.
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs through September 21 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.