Music by Stephen Sondheim,
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Gary Griffin
Music direction by Brad Haak
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
Musical connects all the dots
When a brilliant, innovative work of art inspires an equally brilliant theatrical experience, the resulting masterpiece is not to be missed.
No one who has seen Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George will ever view the Art Institute’s famous Seurat painting in quite the same way. In fact, the painting itself becomes a character in the play — reflecting time and mood as lighting plays on it, shifting shadows. Pointillist painting and pointed play come to life simultaneously as each tree and figure in that famous park emerges on the huge theater backdrop.
In the foreground, fictionalized George Seurat (Jason Danieley) quietly sketches the basic figures which he will turn into art — dot by dot — in his studio. In one of the most brilliant scenes, he applies his brushes, ever so carefully, painstakingly choosing only the primary colors that the viewer’s eye will ultimately blend into varied hues. So obsessed is he with his art that it transcends his entire life, including potential happiness with his model/mistress, aptly named Dot (Carmen Cusack)
What Seurat wanted — and achieved — is equally achieved by Sondheim and Lapine: Order! Design! Composition! Tone! Form! Symmetry! Balance! and Harmony!
Under Gary Griffin’s fine direction, the cast matches the brilliance of the inspiration. Danieley captures the obsessed artist while Cusack skillfully handles the transition from dismayed mistress to practical woman able to leave her lover to enjoy a more viable — if prosaic — future with a willing baker (Michael Aaron Lindner). The leads are matched by a supporting cast which takes on all the nuances of the portraits in the painting. Sean Fortunato as rival artist Jules; McKinley Carter as his wife, and Madison Olszewski as their young daughter are especially effective.
Two quite separate and discrete acts balance each other: the past vs. the present. In the first, we see the obsessed artist, In the second we see his equally obsessed grandson (also played by Danieley). He is also concerned with creating art with his color and light machine: Chromolume #7.
The illegitimate infant of the first act becomes the 98-year-old wheelchair bound grandmother of the second (Cusack) — linking the two stories.
Sondheim once noted that “of all the fifty-odd people” in the large canvas, “not one is looking at another.” They are isolated, as separate as the dots that portray them. If ever there were an example of the whole being even more than the sum of its parts, it is initially in the painting and then, again, in this play in ways Seurat could never have imagined.
Throughout, connection is also achieved via the wonderful Sondheim music with such songs as “Finishing the Hat” and “Move On”: and his signature fast-paced, amusing, nearly tongue twisting lyrics:
Well, there are worse things
Than staring at the water on a Sunday
There are worse things
Than staring at the water
As you’re posing for a picture
Being painted by your lover
In the middle of the summer
On an island in the river on a Sunday
But the worst thing of all would be to miss this play which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.
Beverly Friend, Ph.D.
Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Ave., (312) 595-5600, www.chicagoshakes.com , Tickets $48-$78. Tuesdays through Fridays 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 6 p.m. through Nov. 4 (40 percent discount parking at Navy Pier garages).