Sunday in the Park with George
directed by James Lapine
(Brandman, 1986)

Very little is know of the real Georges Seurat.

That didn't stop Stephen Sondheim (music) and James Lapine (story) from making Seurat, an artist who was disregarded during his life but was active during the formative years of French Impressionism, the subject of a glorious piece of musical theater.

Fortunately for theater lovers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage production was filmed as a stage production. While I have no problems with musicals being adapted for the movies, it's refreshing to be able to see Sunday in the Park with George exactly as a live audience would have seen it -- with better camera angles and close-ups enhancing the experience even more.

Sunday draws its title from A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte, the best-known of Seurat's paintings. The first half of the production is set on a series of Sundays in the 1880s, on the island where Seurat is sketching his subjects and in his studio, where he's hard at work on a massive canvas.

Character drives the play, and Sondheim and Lapine have created marvelous characters from the many figures in the painting. There are the soldiers, the strolling couples, the young women fishing, the children at play, the dogs, the monkey -- all of them play a part in the story. Foremost among them is the fictional Dot, the painting's most dominant figure, who in this story is Seurat's model and lover. (Her name is a bit of a pun; Seurat is breaking away from realistic painting and is devising a new style based on colored dots, later to be known as pointilism.)

Dot's passion is George, but George's passion is art. His obsession is both inspiring and frightening. And giving that intensity it's full measure on the stage is a sterling Mandy Patinkin.

The first time I saw Sunday, my only knowledge of Patinkin was his performance as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Now, sure, his drunken, vengeful Spaniard was excellently done, but I couldn't imagine him singing in a dramatic role.

I can imagine it now. Wow, what an amazing voice Patinkin has! And, as Seurat, he burns with the fire which drives the painter to lock himself away from the world in his need to stand behind his canvas. His voice soars and grumbles and soars again, and his mannerisms as the eccentric artist are very convincing. His passion becomes real for viewers through songs like the poignant "Finishing the Hat" and a series of humorous vignettes in which he briefly assumes the identities of his subjects, from boatman to hound.

He's matched by Dot, portrayed by songstress Bernadette Peters. She is perfect for the role, glowing under the hot sun of Seurat's attentions and affections, pouting when his canvas calls him away, and finally leaving when she can no longer stand being a distant second in his life.

Patinkin and Peters both have some incredibly powerful solos, as each explores their markedly different approach to life. Seurat's love for Dot, we learn, runs deep and is very real, but he cannot sacrifice his art for her. And she realizes she needs more in her life, even though it tears her apart to leave him.

Auxiliary members of the cast fill the story with varying degrees of angst and laughter. Standouts are Charles Kimbrough (Jim Dial on Murphy Brown) and Dana Ivey as the staid, unwavering artist Jules and his rigid wife; Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Nancy Opel as Jules' servants; and Barbara Bryne and Judith Moore as the old woman (George's mother) and her nurse.

There is no dancing in this musical, but there's choreography nonetheless. In a visually stunning scene, Seurat is the director who arranges these characters into a living version of his great painting. (I suppose kudos for this should go to Randolyn Zinn, who is credited for "movement.")

Following a brief intermission, the play picks up again -- first, animating the figures in the painting, where they've stood for generations, and then in modern Chicago, where the anniversary of the painting is being celebrated with the help of multimedia artist, also named George, who is a descendant of Seurat's via Dot. The modern, entirely fictional George shares his ancestor's passion as well as his inability to get close to people because of it. But a sentimental journey to La Grand Jatte brings George a little closer in touch with the power of art.

Years after first seeing Sunday, it remains at the top of my favorite musical productions. The story, the characters, the intensity and the singing -- oh, the marvelous singing! -- make this an experience you'll want to share with yourself again and again.

Creative sorts may find themselves particularly inspired after watching this one.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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Also check out the soundtrack!