Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Pointillism to Pixellism

"Sunday in the Park with George" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, January 31, 2008

I'm a huge Sondheim fan, not rabid, but huge. My first personal encounter with his genius was when I performed in a production of Sweeney Todd at Workshop Theatre (SC) in 1984. (Our musical director described the score as "Puccini by Stravinsky") I've been hooked on his work ever since. One show, however, has troubled me - Sunday in the Park with George. I did not see the OBC live, but did see the recorded show with Mandy Pantinkin and Bernadette Peters.

I loved the first act - true to the period but with a slight nod to contemporary sensibility, strongly centered in a one-two punch of James Lapine book and Stephen Sondheim score.

Then there was Act II.

What a mess! From the random jump in period to the ill-conceived reincarnation of George as pretentious artist/inventor/poseur to the creepy love duet between grandmother and grandson, let's just say it didn't work for me. There were other issues, too, such as the "Chromalume" machine that neither persuaded nor cajoled any connection to Act I.

And now, The Menier Chocolate Factory has teamed with the Roundabout to bring their acclaimed revival from London back to NYC and stars Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell along with it.

The projection design by Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network has done what The Woman in White could not: clever, effective and interesting melding of images on David Farley's white-washed and white-draped garret/gallery sets (instead of the theme-park ride audiences suffered through at the Marquis Theatre). The build of the story is literally sketched out across the walls of the set as George (Daniel Evans) develops his revolutionary artistic style called Pointillism, creating images by using very small points of basic colors (seven, I believe) to trick the eye into combining those colors into much more vibrant colors. His model and lover, the aptly named Dot (Jenna Russell) is devoted to George, but frustrated that he is more devoted to his work than he is to her. When she finds herself pregnant, she turns to Louis the baker (Drew McVety), soon hired by American tourists, who moves his new family to America, leaving George forever.

Act II is set 100 years later in an American museum where Dot's great-grandson, George (also Mr. Evans), is presenting the 7th in his series of art/light inventions, the Chromalume. With him is his grandmother Marie (also Ms. Russell), Dot's (and George's) child. She is part of his presentation in honor the 100th anniversary of his grandfather's painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." They share the introductory comments, reading from prepared cards. Marie, at 100, missed cues and attempts various tangents, but is thoughtfully reigned in by George and his ex-wife Elaine (Brynn O'Malley in the most thankless role in the show.) George travels to France to display the Chromalume on the Island where the painting was set. Mishaps occur with the museum premiere, impacting George's fund raising efforts to continue his art. As he strolls the island, there is the afore-mentioned creepy meeting of young George and Dot. She sings to him as if he is his grandfather, encouraging him to "Move On." I almost thought she was going to kiss him on the mouth at one point - ew!

Enough of my vivisection of Act II. Let's talk about the performances.

As Act I George, Mr. Evans seems to have totally retreated into George's palette, serving only as the brush holder to create the pointillist work of Seurat. We do get an occasional bark in character, emphasizing that his art is and always will be first in his life. He's all business, and any sense of loss when Dot leaves him never comes through, never the first sign of regret or inner turmoil over this choice. His Act II George is much more vulnerable and child-like, almost to the point that I wondered if Mr. Evans were interpreting him as a gay man. His relationship with Marie was quite tender and his struggle with "The Art of Making Art" is well-communicated.

Ms. Russell is more successful as both Dot and Marie. Her Dot is lovely and delicious, uneducated but wanting more for both her and George's life. She soon realizes that George is incapable of returning her feelings even though she knows his feelings are there. She is still practical, realizing that marrying Louis is her only chance to get the life of not-struggling that she would have with George. As Marie, she does a little better in the southern accent required of a woman who grew up in Charleston, SC than the ladies of Crimes of the Heart, but it's still shaky on occasion. Her Marie is still feisty, and will make her point, whether it's related to the topic at hand or not.

Supporting roles are ably handled with notice to Michael Cumpsty as George's more successful painter friend, Jules, in the first act though a bit wasted in his roles overall. Mary Beth Peil does her best to rise above the memory of Barbara Byrne as the Old Lady and for the most part, succeeds.

Director Sam Buntrock has done marvelous work here, combining the technical with the artistic to terrific results. One moment I found particularly touching was when George was arranging the cast for the tableau of his painting. He moves Louis away from Dot, pairing her with Jules, someone he trusts. He then takes the baby ever so tenderly from Dot's arms and gives her to Louis. Even from near the back of the house, I could see the subtext in Mr. Evans' face, giving his child to be raised by someone else, knowing it's the right choice. He does make some advances with the troubling Act II. In "Putting It Together" when George is learning the politics and "art of making art" he uses the projections to good use, multiplying images of George around the stage in conversations with various characters and groups, and on occasion, George himself. Mr. Buntrock does seem equally stunted by Act II with characters such as George's ex-wife Elaine (Why is she there - just to push Dot around in her wheelchair?) and brings no illumination in that sense.

Mr. Farley's costumes are serviceable, tying nicely back to the painting in Act I, and undistracting in Act II.

It's a lovely show, nicely performed with a beautiful score (for the most part). Thanks to the Roundabout for bringing it to us.

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