Theater purists are usually very vocal about technology on the stage, especially when that technology eclipses the actual production. This group of literati disdained the chandelier in "Phantom;" decried the helicopter in "Miss Saigon;" and to this day, despite the brilliance of "The Lion King," continue to snub their noses at anything Disney.
And now, heavily dependent on technology, is the new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," yet it is thrilling beyond anything you can imagine. Here is a case where new media is fused with traditional ones, and the effect is synergistic in the most profound sense of the word.
Conceptually, "Sunday" is about an artist's need to create, and the angst that inevitably accompanies the creative process: "art isn't easy." Specifically, it is Sondheim's imaginings of what pointillist painter, Georges Seurat, endured as he bucked 19th century French tradition to try and "bring order to the whole," constructing a complex painting of people and their pets, known today as "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Looking at color in a new way, he says his famous opening words: "Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony."
The first act, which completes the famous painting, has always seemed perfect by itself, with the second act tacked on as an afterthought. But this time, a century later, still studying the artist and the artistic process, we meet another George, possibly the great-grandson of Seurat, and his modern-day creation in which he uses 20th century electronic media.
What gives this second act real substance, and ties is seamlessly to the first, is the technological foresight of director Sam Buntrock and London's Menier Chocolate Factory. In Buntrock's conceptualization, we are invited, as never before, inside the head of an artist as he renders his art. Not since James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has an artist's language been laid as bare as he obsessively creates his masterpiece, trying just as hard to fit in with the world around him as he is to keep it out.
With Buntrock's direction, we see Seurat's first charcoal line of his masterpiece perfectly calibrated to fit with the first lines of the musical score. Upon an all-white set, Buntrock and his animation team superimposed the pointillist characters in the painting onto the walls and doors, as the young painter, passionately played by Daniel Evans, paints them on the framed open canvas downstage.
Suddenly, there is a figure with a bustle and a hat, larger than life, larger than the original canvas. The song "Finishing the Hat" demonstrates the artistï¿½s obsession, and the technology takes on the role of the artist's brush, visually rendering just what that looks and feels like to the artist at work. "There was a hat, where before there wasn't a hat," is the epitome of an artist's creation and justification of why artists are not like other people.
Dot, Seurat's fictional model and lover, played by newcomer Jenna Russell in what will probably be an award-winning performance, brings our emotions to task in her own obsessive love for the painter who only loves his need to paint. As she leaves to save herself, we understand that Georges can't give her what she wants; only the canvas can receive his heart.
As Sondheim's characters tell us, "Bit By Bit," they are "Putting It Together." Ultimately, Georges and George complete their masterpieces and they are satisfied with their work, even if the critics aren't.
Not only is this show sensational, it's groundbreaking, not just because of the technology, but because in this production, the painting is the star, not the actors. Buntrock has shown us that this young century's technological capabilities, into which we've just begun to delve, can now breathe a new life into standard musical theater productions, making Broadway more alive and relevant than ever without becoming Disney-ed.
Do not miss this brilliant production.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"The look of the show feels like thought made visible, just as Mr. Sondheimï¿½s ravishing score, performed with gleaming delicacy by a five-member ensemble."
New York Times
"Art isn't easy, but you'd never know it from the elegantly acted, directed and designed revival of "Sunday in the Park with George." & "In the ravishing climactic song, "Move On," Dot urges George to "Give us more to see." You'll feel the same way when your time in the park with George ends."
New York Daily News
"One of the most visually amazing shows ever to reach Broadway." & "Do go and see this unmissably innovative piece of musical staging - but don't blame me if, at the end, you feel you might have done better to leave at the intermission."
New York Post
"Some first-time viewers may find the show too cerebral for comfort, but there is no denying the tremendous imagination and great artistry that makes this musical a singular Broadway experience."
"Sunday, with its focus on the tension between life and art, is one of his most achingly tender works, and Buntrock (director) underscores its visceral punch."
"Fear not. It's still magic."
"Visually rapturous revival." & "Sadly, the emotional punch that should pulse through duets such as "We Do Not Belong Together" remains muffled here. The tumultuous response that greeted their London performances notwithstanding, Ms. Russell and especially Mr. Evans have yet to create characterizations strong enough to overcome the skeletal second act, let alone counteract Mr. Buntrock's captivating visuals."
New York Sun
"If you want to know how clever a musical can get, catch "Sunday in the Park With George" at Roundabout Theater's Studio 54. The James Lapine book is extremely clever, Stephen Sondheim's score even more so. Unfortunately, clever and good are not quite identical." & "Too bad, though, that the five-piece orchestra, expertly led by Britain's Caroline Humphris at the piano, so often sounded as if it were only a piano. My real problem, finally, is that the songs, though generally impressive, are more apt than appealing, more concert- hall than Broadway. It is a musical with rather more mind than heart."
"The production gives the show's composer, Stephen Sondheim, something he never seemed to have before: A heart. It is overwhelmingly moving, in a way that it never was in its controversial original production in 1984." & "In 1984, Mandy Pantinkin and Bernadette Peters created the roles of George and Dot with the monotonous sameness of Broadway stars who always play themselves. In contrast, Evans and Russell bring youth and an amazing, unexpected freshness to the proceedings, laced with immense sadness at their characters' lost connections." & "Builds relentlessly to an emotional finale that is not likely to leave you dry-eyed as the curtain falls"
Jacques le Sourd
"In the original production, George and Dot were played, wonderfully, by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But they were stars, and brought their strongly defined personalities to the characters. Evans and Russell, who were in the revival's London production, create a very different feeling. With their casting, Buntrock greatly boosted the play's emotional level. The two excellent actors create characters who are real-life, human-size, accessible people." & "Sondheim has rarely been known to tug at the heartstrings, but as "Sunday" is reprised at the end, the moment is extraordinarily touching."
"The projections bring a fluidity to the revival, a brushstroke ease of movement that suggests the act of putting paint on canvas. But they would be only empty motion if the performances surrounding them were not compelling. Fortunately, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell are as fine as their starry predecessors in interpreting the obsessed painter and the woman who can't compete with his fierce artistic vision." & "As the late 20th-century George reiterates, "Art isn't easy." That may be true. But when the result has as much power and emotion as this Roundabout revival, it can be an absolute joy."
"Cleverly utilizing still and animated projections to convey the painter's painstaking artistic process, this superbly staged and acted revival does ample justice to the material."
"Meticulously thought-through revival (originally produced at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 and later transferred to the West End) brings the 1984 musical back to Broadway for the first time, carrying an exhilarating emotional charge." & "It's a difficult but infinitely rewarding musical of disparate elements that combine to achieve true harmony, bringing passionate insight to the relationship between art, artists and audience, and to the boundless possibilities of art itself. The clarity and depth of understanding in this revival make it an experience to be savored."