Has any creator in the realm of musical theater ever considered each syllable of text, each note and harmonic turn as deeply as Stephen Sondheim?
His intense focus, his drive to find and express inner truths about the complexities of life, art and heart yielded one of Sondheim's most personal works, "Sunday in the Park with George," which has received a rewarding revival by Signature Theatre to launch the company's 25th anniversary season.
I don't think it's stretching a point to see an autobiographical undercurrent to this 1984 show, which came along just a few years after the ill-fated "Merrily We Roll Along," perhaps Sondheim’s most celebrated failure.
The two men at the center of "Sunday in the Park with George" reveal an awful lot of what we know, or think we know, about Sondheim.
Act 1 revolves around pathbreaking painter Georges Seurat, obsessed with completing his massive masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Act 2 introduces his fictional great-grandson, a conceptual artist named George. Both serve as symbols for the creative struggle.
Seurat developed the ingenious, painstaking process of pointillism that used tiny dabs of color to produce images. In one of the musical's most telling numbers, "Finishing the Hat," Seurat sings of "how you have to watch the rest of the world from a window" while you create.
It's a deft portrait of how an artist constantly re-thinks, re-touches during the process of making "a hat where there never was a hat," but often misses the chance to enjoy the life beckoning beyond the frame.
Sondheim clearly felt a connection to the character and the sentiment (his two recent, irresistible books are called "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat").
He felt a connection as well to the character of the great-grandson, who is is revealed to be conflicted about his work and purpose. "I want to make things that count, things that will be new," George sings. He gets some sound advice: "Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision -- they usually do. You keep moving on."
After the critical beating "Merrily" received, "Sunday" sure looks like Sondheims way of following that advice. It's a show that really does count, that really is new.
With a book by James Lapine (his first collaboration with Sondheim), the musical cleverly brings to life not just Seurat, but invents lives for several of the characters immortalized in the "La Grande Jatte." Chief among them is the painter's mistress, Dot (the perfect name for a pointillist's partner), who, pregnant with Seurat's child, tires of being ignored.
In the second act, set in 1984, we meet Marie, the now nearly 100-year old child from that affair and keeper of treasured memories about the origins of Seurat's most famous painting. She keeps a close eye on her grandson George, whose latest multimedia creation is inspired by that painting. An encounter with the spirit of Dot helps George find his path.
It all sounds a bit odd in the tellng, but, somehow, the musical provides a sturdy frame to hold the elements together.
If there are some questionable moments -- Seurat's repeated mantra of "order, design, tension," etc., tends to sound arch; his dog-imitation song comes off as contrived cuteness; the name "George" is uttered a few hundred times too often in song -- the end result is an engaging, witty, touching theatrical experience.
Signature Theatre, which has an extraordinary track record of stellar Sondheim productions, gives "Sunday" a staging directed in compellingly detailed fashion by Matthew Gardiner and performed by a dynamic cast.
Claybourne Elder does assured work as the two Georges, conveying Seurat's concentration and isolation (I wish they could find a more persuasive beard), then the mix of idealism and uncertainty in the 1980s George. Except when pushing his voice, Elder sings with warmth and nuance.
Brynn O'Malley has a dual triumph. This delectable actress makes Dot a wonderfully vibrant, yet vulnerable, woman, and, turns into the nonagenarian Marie with remarkable subtlety and charm. O'Malley is also a terrific singer, revealing a natural instinct for phrasing.
The ensemble boasts lots of colorful performers taking on multiple assignments. Donna Migliaccio's richly drawn portrayal of Seurat's mother hits home in the wistful number "Beautiful," and the very amusing Maria Egler gives deftly crafted portrayals of three distinct roles.
Sondheim's vibrant score -- note the minimalist staccato patterns perfectly illustrating Seurat's dot-by-dot technique -- is beautifully realized by an orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch.
The evocative set (Daniel Conway), refined lighting (Jennifer Schriever) and spot-on costumes (Frank Labovitz) put the finishing touches on this welcome reminder of Sondheim's uncommon art.