It isn’t the dots that get me; it’s the sobs. I’ve spoken to seven people who’ve caught Sunday in the Park With George at the Eisenhower Theater since it opened this past weekend, and five of them have talked, without prompting, of choking up at the first-act finale. I know just how they feel, having wiped away tears myself—not, I should mention, in sadness.
This Pulitzer-winning musical about the art of making art isn’t pulling out the emotional stops at the halfway mark over its hero’s loss of his girlfriend. Painter Georges Seurat has indeed lost his ebullient mistress at that point, by laboring single-mindedly over his brushwork when she needed a kind word and a gentle touch. Still, the inspiration for the swelling chorus and mad rush of activity that climaxes Act 1 isn’t the finish of their affair but the finishing of the celebrated painting he’s been working on so feverishly.
The moment is all about rightness, not romance. Composer Stephen Sondheim marshals a crescendo of chords, director Eric Schaeffer choreographs a parade of images capped by a perfectly timed tug on a loosely draped dropcloth, and the result…well, it just takes the breath away. You either choke or cheer. At the opening, people did both.
Schaeffer has, let’s note, taken on a more complicated task than did the directors of Sweeney Todd and Company, the first two shows of the Kennedy Center’s five-month-long “Sondheim Celebration.” James Lapine, author of Sunday’s book, is the guy who staged the Broadway original, and he pretty much nailed it that first time. He and Sondheim crafted the show around the distinctive talents of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, who not only recorded the cast album but also had their performances captured on video for PBS. And then there’s the not inconsequential matter of design. It’s possible to do Cats without a flying truck tire and Hello Dolly! without a red dress. But Sunday’s whole first act builds to that finale in which a director must re-create, in three dimensions, Seurat’s 1884-1886 pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There are only so many ways to do that onstage, and, again, the Broadway designers got it right the first time.
How, then, to put one’s stamp on a new staging? How to free it from the tyranny of that seemingly ideal first mounting? Schaeffer has previously directed the show twice in D.C.—first for Arlington Stage, then in a joint production for Signature Theatre and Arena Stage—and both times he essentially reproduced the Broadway original, right down to the sets and costumes, which he purchased and reused. At Arena, he did a bit of tweaking in Act 2, when the plot leaps ahead several generations to another artistic George who’s working with color and light. On Broadway, the electronic gizmo the modern George called “Chromolume #7” involved lasers; at Arena, it involved video tricks. Still, the show hadn’t so much been reconsidered as remounted.
This time, it has been rethought, redesigned, and clarified in ways that work so well they make the original conception seem more a choice than a given. The curtain rises not on Broadway’s all-white stage—the theatrical equivalent of the blank canvas Georges mentions in the evening’s opening line—but on an artist’s studio framed by arches made up of hundreds of blank canvases. Easels draped with white sheets stand in front of a stagewide unstretched backcloth, and as Georges (Raul Esparza) imagines the island of La Grande Jatte, set designer Derek McLane whips the sheets skyward one by one, revealing pointillist landscape paintings glistening wetly in the morning light.
One easel rolls sideways to reveal Dot (Melissa Errico), Georges’ mistress and model, and the play proper begins. She’s a live wire, sparking with enthusiasm. He’s a wet blanket, obsessing with work, and their romance understandably short-circuits. As it does, we meet the other figures who’ll populate his painting—a surly boatman, a pompous artist and his wife, ramrod-straight soldiers, flighty shopgirls, servants, swells, even dogs—and get a feel for the passionate science Seurat brought to his canvases by placing tiny dots of pigment in close proximity and letting the eye mix them to create a whole spectrum. Alas, he’s neglecting the gorgeous mistress who’s splashing around nude in his bathtub, and before long, she’s making plans to head off for America. That’s when Sondheim’s gathering chords set the stage for what the evening has been building to all along. As the cast sings of “blue, purple, yellow, red water” and “green, orange, violet grass,” Georges rushes around the stage rearranging figures and pulling the painting together in his mind’s eye, and, finally, Howell Binkley’s lighting freezes the image. The curtain falls. Cheers. Tears. Intermission.
Apart from letting us see Dot before, rather than after, she gets out of the tub, and giving McLane a free hand in redesigning the set, Schaeffer hasn’t taken many pre-intermission liberties. But in Act 2, the director is bolder, resolving a few conceptual infelicities in clever ways. The modern George’s art, for instance, has always been problematic. It needs to echo Seurat’s work while being equivalently experimental, and no production I’ve seen before this one has managed the trick. Schaeffer has Binkley bathe a stageful of gallery patrons in a wash of bright hues and lets their dazed expressions create the Chromolume by proxy, a solution as graceful as it is smart. For the following scene, in which George (also Esparza) sings of artistic fundraising (“Putting It Together”) while trying to keep multiple conversations going simultaneously—a shmoozefest usually illustrated with pop-up cutouts that serve as conversational place-savers—the director uses flat-screen TVs with oversized pixellation to remind us that Seurat’s dots of color have contemporary equivalents.
He’s also arranged for some lovely grace notes that tie this show to others in the Sondheim fest. I’d never noted the parallels between motherly laments in Sunday and A Little Night Music, for instance, but something about the way Linda Stephens sings “Beautiful,” about disappearing landscapes, reminded me of Night Music’s original Madame Armfeldt, Hermione Gingold, singing about disappearing liaisons. Because “Liaisons” will be sung at the KenCen later this summer by Barbara Bryne, the woman who first sang “Beautiful,” it’s easy enough for festival audiences to, um, connect those dots. Similarly, Schaeffer draws connections between antisocial Sondheimian rants by giving the angry Boatman in Sunday a Sweeneyish gesture: On the lyric “We’re society’s fault,” Michael L. Forrest (who played Todd in D.C. a decade ago) swings a whiskey bottle rather than a razor. And the line “Connect, George, connect” acquires extra shadings if you know that Esparza—who is quite good in Sunday as two different artists who allow work to destroy their love lives—will play an artist arguing passionately that love should triumph over work in Merrily We Roll Along.
You can quibble about performance details: Errico’s Dot has lilting quasi-operatic high notes, rather than the sharp belting ones Peters brought to the role, which takes the edge off some of her lyrics. And substituting video screens for Seurat’s painting in Act 2 makes a hash of the moment when Marie (Errico again, this time elderly and with a Southern accent) sings, “There she is, there she is, there she is,” because it leaves her with nothing to point to.
Still, these are quibbles. The show is a knockout—the most fully realized and freshly considered of the Sondheim Celebration thus far. Sondheim fans have already lifted Sunday almost to near-sellout status (as I write this, a few seats are still available midweek), and Sweeney and Company have already gone clean, including most of the standing-room spots, which means the whole first rep is essentially out of reach unless you’re willing to wait in the cancellation line that’s been forming nightly an hour before showtime. A word to the wise: Though the less familiar titles in the July/August rep—Passion, Night Music, and Merrily—will doubtless be a tougher sell and buying pigs in pokes isn’t something I’d normally recommend, I’d say, on the strength of the first three productions, that you’d have to be nuts to risk getting shut out.
Candida (Valerie Leonard) is the wife of a preacher and the inspiration for a poet in the George Bernard Shaw comedy that bears her name, and at the Olney Theatre Center, these rivals for her affection look about as different as is humanly possible. The preacher stands straight and tall, with hair on his chin but not on his head; the poet cringes, sporting a Dutchboy mop above peach fuzz. But listen to them and you’d swear they were both to the pulpit born. Young Marchbanks (Jeffries Thaiss), who thinks he can steal Candida away from the Rev. Morell (Ross A. Dippel) by trumping husbandly myopia with overwrought versifying, brings an orator’s presence to his poetic pronouncements even as he’s shrinking from blows before they’re offered. But when Morell calls him a “snivelling little whelp,” he’s only half right. This whelp doesn’t snivel; he puffs himself up and says, with the passionate authority that only a teenager can muster, “I will stagger you.”
Dippel’s Morell, for his part, is more easily staggered than appearances might suggest. A portrait of rectitude and resolution, he has a way of registering desolation with his eyes when he thinks his wife might leave him. In Shaw’s view, Candida is Mom and both men are overgrown children, and that’s where most productions head from the outset. But Richard Romagnoli’s staging discovers other values in a show that’s usually treated as either a star vehicle for its leading lady or a melodramatic war horse. This is the director, remember, who brought Olney a Camille that sweated passion and an Importance of Being Earnest in which Oscar Wilde seemed to be playing Algernon.
This time, Romagnoli has had designer Robin Stapley represent Morell’s library mostly with stained-glass windows, through which Josh Bradford sends streams of light, saturating the stage with color and raising the temperature inside the theater until the air itself seems infused with ardor. His performers play in so heightened a manner that they almost appear to be on the verge of bursting into song. Candida’s cockney-industrialist father (Carter Jahncke) reminded me more of My Fair Lady’s Alfred Doolittle than of Pygmalion’s as he leaned with a devilish smirk against a stone serpent coiled around a column that instantly seemed the tree of knowledge in a spoiled Eden. Anna Belknap’s bossy but romantically flustered secretary comes across as the sort of soubrette who’d get the guy if she’d just let down her hair and remove her glasses. And as they all hurl themselves into postures and across furniture around the Candida that Leonard creates as the calm center of an emotional storm, they revivify a play that often seems tame and talky next to Shaw’s more overtly political works but here seems freshly ferocious. CP