Art Isn’t Easy

THEATER REVIEW: Sunday in the Park with George
Huntington Theatre, Boston, September 24, 2016

Hello, George. Where did you go, George?

Seeing Sunday in the Park with George, and listening to the score, has always been an emotional experience for me. Before our eyes, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical turns an impressionist Georges Seurat painting into a rich canvas of overlapping lives. People intersect, their private desires and indiscretions becoming public for one immortal moment, unaware they’d be remembered, explored by artists long after they’re gone.

I’ve seen the 2002 Kennedy Center production with Raúl Esparza and Melissa Errico (passionately acted), the 2006 London revival with Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell (intimate and technologically innovative), and of course the video of the original cast. So I admired the Huntington’s handsome staging, directed by Peter DuBois. There’s an unavoidable blueprint for Sunday’s sets and costumes, yet the Huntington’s designers find new insight, the stage enclosed in a wooden frame speckled with pointillist projections. A glass wall at the back of the Parisian set nicely mirrors George’s “Finishing the Hat” lyric, “how you watch the rest of the world from a window.”

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But Sunday is only as strong as its two leads. The other characters are largely incidental to the century-spanning relationship between Seurat and Dot, his lover and muse. At the Huntington, Adam Chanler-Berat feels out-of-place as George. His muted, dispassionate approach to George doesn’t register for most of Act One, and gives Jenni Barber as Dot little to play off. It’s a tough role, but Chanler-Berat doesn’t find much to latch onto until “Finishing the Hat,” his first real moment that lands, and we start to understand his approach: a man who can’t express, who can’t look outside himself and his work. He’s stronger as Act Two George, Seurat’s great-grandson, finally striking a spark as he schmoozes the museum hoi polloi with “Putting It Together.” But his George overall (to paraphrase a lyric) could use more presence, more passion.

Barber, playing opposite him, knocks Dot out of the park (wink, wink). Dot is a wonderfully written role, a gift to an actress—it’s easier for her to steal the show. Nonetheless, Barber charts a clear arc from saucy coquette to a woman maturing to make the most of her new circumstances. “I do not think I can have what I want,” she says to George, pregnant with his child. “Louis is what I think I need.” Barber is also touching as Marie (Dot’s daughter) in 1984; “Children and Art” is the heart of the modern half of the show.

Moving into the future has its detractors. Somehow it rushes by at the Huntington; if we don’t emotionally connect to the younger George’s crisis, then Act Two becomes a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. But there are nice discoveries at the Huntington, too: The gentle 11-person orchestration holds up, and it’s kitschy fun to flash forward into the pointillist synthesizers of the ‘80s. The music is the most emotional Sondheim writing out there; “We Do Not Belong Together” is heartbreaking here. And seeing the painting come to fruition in “Sunday” is unrivaled in the theater. There’s always more to see.

 

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