What shines brightest in the Huntington Theatre Company’s respectful new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George” is the sheer brilliance of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Performed as the season opener and part of the Huntington’s “Sondheim Cycle,” the classic 1984 musical is currently playing at the Boston University Theatre, the company’s main stage.
Based on pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, the play examines what it means to be immortalized, however accidentally.
Split between two centuries, the first act explores the lives and foibles of the Parisians depicted in Seurat’s masterpiece, including his tempestuous affair with Dot, the main figure in the painting. A shorter second act involves George, Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, himself a struggling artist in the 1980s New York art scene.
With each actor performing different roles in the different eras, the spirited production features a credibly disquiet Adam Chanler-Berat as both artists. If his portrayal of Seurat seems at times aloof and passive, it only enhances his George, an artist both plagued and fascinated by his heritage. Chanler-Berat, while seeming more at home in the contemporary surroundings, ensures the audience finds the connection that exists among artists throughout the ages, destined to be misunderstood and discontented.
However, it is Jenni Barber’s electric portrayal of Dot, and later Marie, George’s grandmother (Seurat and Dot’s daughter), that gives the production a necessary jolt of life. The restlessness and passion for her lover in the first act give way to a poignant wistfulness as an old matriarch in the second. While the rest of the cast performs with energy and gusto, the production at times suffers from its stately respect for the material – there are no new discoveries made and no standout additions to the work.
Of course, because this is a Sondheim creation, it does not make for an uninteresting night of theatre. The production is superbly well-executed and inspires awe and goosebumps as the artist perfects his craft, with the first act culminating in a tableau vivant recreation of the iconic painting. The genuine thrill of seeing a master at work is doubly impactful as one watches Seurat stab flecks of color onto his canvas while hearing Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score, which mirrors the artist’s impressionistic artistry; punchy and pointillistic when Seurat deals with his present work but lingering and persisting when looking toward the future.
Questioning ideas of art as personal fulfillment, creation for posterity and the ghosts that continuously haunt artists, the production benefits from being a revival, as its dated depiction of the 1980s as contemporary times imbue the work with a sense of prescience, of knowing that art – and anything we hold to be current and true – is constantly passing. None of the subjects of the original painting knew they’d be immortalized, just as none of the characters from the latter half of the show would know that they would one day be seen as dated and ridiculous.
Christopher Akerlind’s somewhat unimagitative lighting adds to the set, designed by Derek McLane. Flowing smoothly from the titular island to the artist studio, it impressively blurs the lines between the two and creates the impression of being in a living work of art.
“Sunday in the Park with George” is in performance at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Boston University Theatre through Oct. 16.
Photo courtesy Paul Marotta, Huntington Theatre Company