Like the pointillist dots that fill the canvas of Georges Seurat’s masterful painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, each element of Signature Theatre’s stunning production of Sunday in the Park with George flows seamlessly together to create one unified artistic entity. Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) and James Lapine’s (Book) groundbreaking and very uniquely wrought musical, that opened on Broadway in 1984, is a landmark musical and an extremely innovative stylistic breakthrough in the musical theater canon. Even today, as the critical pundits continue to proclaim that this may be Sondheim’s most significant musical accomplishment, one is almost taken aback at the daring it took to compose such a distinctive and slightly audacious musical.
Arlington’s Signature Theatre has delivered its distinctive brand of professional gloss and passion as one might expect – that is no surprise as Signature Theatre is known worldwide for its expertise in producing the musicals of Sondheim. Ravishing vocals, orchestrations (eleven musicians excel under the baton of Conductor John Kalbfleisch), and superior Scenic Design (by Daniel Conway) represent the usual exquisite interpretation of Sondheim that we have come to expect from Signature.
The real and very pleasurable surprise here is the emotional heft and sharp psychological acuity that prolific Director and Choreographer Matthew Gardiner has brought to the book by James Lapine. I have seen this musical twice previously and the interludes between the musical numbers were usually performed in a perfunctory manner. In this marvelous production, however, Gardiner and his talented ensemble cast understand the intricate yet vast artistic “feel” of this landmark musical. Concurrent tones of wistfulness, sorrow, elation, and humor co-exist alongside one another as the entire cast performs each scene to the hilt. The entire supporting cast is wonderful but, first, I shall address the principals.
As the famed artist Georges Seurat, Claybourne Elder has the difficult job of making a very introspective and methodical character interesting to the audience. Elder delivers an astute performance and he conveys all the inner torments, anguish and obsessions which affect the creative process. Elder has a wonderfully caressing tone to his voice and he displays it to full advantage in his scene-stealing solo “Finishing the Hat.” Elder’s solo becomes a vocal poem of artistic commitment in the face of criticism from conformist art critics, small-minded parochial types and, even, his mistress.
All the obsession and intensity of Seurat is shown most powerfully in the two stunning duets with his beloved mistress Dot (Brynn O’Malley), namely, “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On.” Elder disarms one with his placid tones only to advance into full-throttle belting as each song develops more emotional complexity. As is often the case with Sondheim, alternately contemplative and more soaring songs are creatively interposed throughout the storyline to show the psychological states of the characters.
O’Malley’s vocal chops are strong, and my God in heaven, what an actress! Every line and every note of each song she sings is delivered with such spontaneous “in the moment” nuance and expressiveness, that one is never prepared for what emotion she will convey next. O’Malley’s physical presence is lithe and seductive yet authoritative. O’Malley shines especially in the title song, the afore-mentioned duets, and the ebullient (yet slightly doubtful) “Everybody Loves Louis.”
As mentioned, the entire ensemble is marvelous but particularly worthy of an extra mention are Erin Driscoll (Celeste #2/Elaine), Mitchell Hebert (Jules/Robert Greenberg), Donna Migliaccio (Old Lady/Blair Daniels), Paul Scanlan (Boatman/Dennis), and Gregory Maheu (Soldier/Alex).
Enough cannot be said about the technical components of this production. Scenic Designer Daniel Conway’s set is a marvel to behold from the woodcuts intricately presented on the center of the stage to the movable pieces of Seurat’s famed painting that fly in from all sides to merge with the actual live human beings (to create the esteemed painting). Projection Designer Robbie Hayes electrifies the audience with a series of video panels and lighting projection installations that constitute the more contemporary look of Act Two.
Costume Designer Frank Labovitz captures the Parisian feel of the period of Seurat’s life with a vast panoply of eye-catching color and brio. Labovitz also expertly catches the hip and sophisticated attire of the contemporary scenes. Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever performs subtle and evocative wonders with her lighting choices.
Tears are hard to keep at bay when the anguished yet cathartic creation of a work of art is shown in the glorious finale to Act One as all the disparate characters of Seurat’s world begin to slowly fill in his canvas, until we are left with Seurat’s famous painting. Even more emotionally satisfying is the finale to Act Two as we witness a blank white canvas as a sign of hope to the committed artist. As Signature Theatre’s artistic triumph of a production exemplifies and as the closing words state, there are… “so many possibilities.”
Signature Theatre continues its tradition of capturing the work of Stephen Sondheim better than any other theatre on the planet.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Sunday in the Park with George plays through September 21, 2014 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.