Personal Theatrical Musings on Performances

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Sunday In the Park With George" at Roundabout Theater on Feb. 24, NY, NY

People like to say that they hate musicals. Sometimes it’s because the music is too stylized or lacks any vigor or because it’s silly to think of people talking and then suddenly breaking into song. I myself usually dislike musicals – mostly because the music tends to be dull and repetitive, the acting overdone and lacking any emotion or subtlety, and the stories silly, flat, and sentimental. One of the reasons I love Sondheim is because his music is complicated and fresh, even decades after hearing it for the first time. Now that opera houses are doing “Sweeney Todd,” people who at first didn’t, for whatever reason, hear the innovative and complex emotion in those songs are giving him another look and we’re seeing a wave of revivals. As for those who can’t get past the fact that people are singing dialogue, well, I just can’t make sense of that. Music is just one way of conveying emotion. It’s a stylistic device, like any in a number of such devices used in good theater or film. (Of course, people who LOVE!!! musicals can seem to lack any judgment and perhaps the force of their enthusiasm annoys the rest of us.)

The plot of “Sunday in the Park with George” revolved aroun the relationship between the late 19th century painter George Seurat and his fictional model, Dot, who appears in his famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte.” Seurat loves Dot but his compulsion to paint leads him to ignore her constantly. Plus, while he loves Dot, he cannot bring himself to tell her how musch he does. During an argument, Seurat tells Dot that she knows exactly how he feels and that he shouldn’t have to say it. Dot responds that he might be feeling many things and that she cannot know exactly what he feels if he doesn’t tell her. Pregnant with his child but knowing that she cannot get what wants from Seurat, she marries a baker and moves with him to the United States. Dot has a child named Marie and Marie’s son gives birth to another artist named George. Like Seurat, this George is also interested in blazing forth new directions in art, especially in the study of color and light, and unable to speak of his feelings. We see him at a museum reception for donors, where his ex-wife is keeping Marie company, and we know that he has lost her for the same reason.

The music in “Sunday in the Park with George” is particularly difficult to sing plus requires excellent acting to properly convey the emotion of the songs. The leads in this new production handle both excellently. They are both deft with Sondheim’s music, which often call for very fast singing. There are three songs in this play that I find especially moving. One is “Finishing the Hat,” in which Seurat realizes he’s going to lose Dot because he’s decided to stay in and finish painting the hat that she wears in the painting. In it, he sings about what he sacrifices in order to paint, aware that he’s looking at the thing he loves as he’s losing it. Another is Dot’s song, “We Do Not Belong Together,” in which she realizes that although she loves George it is better for her to leave him and go to America. And, finally, a song that George’s mother sings lamenting the loss of the tress on the island and the changes that modernity brings. Upset about the loss of the natural landscape and complaining about the construction of the Eifel Tower, which she considers a poor substitute for a tree, George tries to reassure her that everything is beautiful because someone has made it and that she only needs to look at them in a new way. Unconvinced, she ends the song by saying wistfully, “Oh Georgie, how I long for the old days.”

The direction in this production is careful and smart. The music is as wonderful and moving as ever. The illustrations of Seurat’s painting are made through computer graphics. The walls in the production are all white and as Seurat speaks instructions, we see his brush strokes materialize on the white walls. Seurat, of course, loves these white walls because he sees in them the possibilities of what he will create. A special challenge for a director comes in the second act, which has always seemed disjointed. The action taking place in the 1980’s can seem underdeveloped and less moving than those taking place in the 1880’s. This production connects the two acts by showing what making art is and means to the two Georges and by giving the contemporary George a moment of recognition and catharsis that seems to be cut off by Seurat. In the first act, after witnessing George not being able to tell Dot that he loves her and failing to take care of her, we see the attention he pays to her in his painting. He messes endlessly with the hat, with her bustle, with the monkey she has on a leash. He takes great care, in fact, in how he places everyone and everything in the painting. As we see his care for composition, we see how George experiences and conveys his love for those around him. Later, we see the 1980’s George at a donor reception as he schmoozes the individual donors, the people who might commission a piece, the curator who might give him a museum show, the critic who has the power to shape opinions about his work and future, and the artistic collaborators without whom he can’t make his pieces. This is how art is made in the 1980’s, a kind of composition that is very different than what Seurat had to deal with. Finally, the show ends when the 1980’s George goes to the island where Seurat’s painting was created and sees how the landscape has changed. It’s almost unrecognizable, except for the curving lines of the river, which we recognize from the painting, and one tree that still remains. George sits on a park bench and breaks into tears, recognizing how much he misses Marie, conflating Marie with his mother in the first act. This emotional outpouring is something that Seurat would not have done and we take a little hope that this George might change the direction of his emotional life.

I could go on and on but I won’t, except to say that this is as good a production as I’ve ever seen and perhaps even more carefully directed, or at least somehow more intimate, than the original production. And while I can’t help hearing Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patikin when I hear these songs in my head, I did largely forgot them as I watched this production.

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