Theater: Sondheim Connects the Dots

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SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine

A century ago, when he began painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat froze a score of weekend strollers into pointillist immortality. Now they are posed on a Broadway stage, thawing into something like life. The matron on the right, with the bustle and the chained monkey? She is the artist's mistress, Dot (Bernadette Peters), pretty as a picture but not quite so still; she would rather be at the Follies. See the white bundle a man at the rear is holding? That is the infant daughter of Dot and the artist; she will grow up in America, and in Act II her grandson George, a sculptor, will take a journey of self-discovery back to his roots on this island in the Seine:

And where is Seurat (Mandy Patinkin)? Everywhere. Finishing a hat, making trees and boats appear with a wave of inspiration, forsaking his mistress and their child to remain faithful to the only dots that matter: those in his painting. "I am not hiding behind my canvas," he declares. "I am living in it." Only he could live there, where the emotional chaos of life can be made as ordered and harmonious as a green thought in a green shade.

Seurat was the wayward child of impressionism. Renoir and Sisley might seek to catch life on the fly; he would aspire to stasis. Their voluptuous brushstrokes were too imprecise, too sensational for this artist-scientist. Seurat worked dot by meticulous dot, woodpeckering the canvas with pricks of color that would fuse into meaning in the spectator's eye. So it is with the sculptor in Act II of Sunday in the Park with George. This George composes bit by bit, or byte by byte. He has created a computerized sculpture, Chromolume #7 (chromo-luminarism is an other critical term for Seurat's technique), that puts on a sound-and-light show at the flick of a switch. Soon he will fall through a visionary's looking glass into the past, to find art merging with dreams on an ordinary Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Broadway audiences may have more trouble than George stepping into this austere, demanding concept. No high-kicking razzmatazz here; in fact, no choreography. No heart-pummeling sentiment; in fact, virtually no characters, as Author-Director James Lapine follows Seurat's lead and dehydrates his actors into cardboard stereotypes. Nor is there a surfeit of "humma-mamumma-mamum-mable melodies," Stephen Sondheim's derisively witty phrase from his last show, Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim long ago renounced such simple show-biz pleasures; neither Dot nor the audience gets to go to the Follies. This score is often doggedly mimetic, achieving its pointillist effects note by Johnny-one-note. Nearly every number begins with a staccato verse and chorus; it soars toward traditional musical passion only at midpoint, then withdraws into tart anticlimax. It takes a second or third hearing for ballads like Finishing the Hat, Beautiful and Sunday to betray subterranean seisms of feeling: ironic, wistful, profound, possessed. A heart beats under that starched shirt.

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