Roundabout Theatre Company, New York’s largest nonprofit theater initiative, is to be commended for keeping Disney-laden Broadway interesting in recent years. Although its latest revival, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, hasn’t created quite as much large-scale buzz as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, this stunning production should be a must-see before it closes in June.
Loosely based on French artist Georges Seurat’s creation of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the musical is Sondheim’s meditation on the isolating, narcissistic nature of art that somehow ends in liberation and immortality. Its humanity and hypnotic appeal happen almost in spite of these themes; there are, after all, few experiences more off-putting than watching a successful artist’s lament on the tribulations of being misunderstood.
The story shows Seurat (or simply “George”) obsessing over his painting of passersby in the park, visualizing hats, trees, infants and sailboats and eliminating details he doesn’t like: a little girl’s clunky-framed glasses, a former lover’s new family unit. In the process, he loses his muse and finds himself incapable of returning affection for anything but the stiff figures on his canvas. The second act jumps ahead a hundred years, to George’s great-grandson presenting a piece of modern art inspired by Sunday Afternoon. All that remains of George’s artistic agony is his most famous painting that, thanks to the inspiration it provides, gives a purpose to his failed personal life.
Even in the special effects-laden world of Broadway, Sunday is perhaps the only show that I could, if forced, watch without sound. The purposely bare-bones story is moved forward almost entirely by its animated visuals that do something remarkable: Evoke a jaw-drop reaction in viewers who routinely watch cities turn to ash on movie screens. Thanks to breakthroughs in computer animation, the audience watches a painter envision a dreamy landscape on the stage’s white backdrop. Boats move, dogs scratch their ears, and, over time, a lush public space turns into a riverbank populated by industrial buildings.
A careful listen reveals thoughtful lyrics (“You watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat,” George sings), but in the end it’s the images that most deliver the meaning of Sondheim’s characters. From the first, gray line that George’s imagination draws across the blank stage, Sunday is an experience that makes us believe in the otherworldly power of visual art–and a Broadway musical with layers and substance.