Sunday in the Park with George

Now playing at Studio 54 on Broadway.

I’ve seen theater that uses video projection before, but even when it was done well, it always seemed superfluous, just trendy window-dressing. And none of it compared to the stunning, seamless, marvelously engaging animation in this production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Those other plays could have been stripped down without losing much, but the wizardry of this Sunday production so perfectly complements and expands upon the musical cues and dramatic themes that I can’t imagine the musical without it.

The touchstone of Sunday in the Park With George is, of course, Seurat’s iconic pointillistic masterpiece, and director Sam Buntrock’s production (which debuted at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the West End and finally to Broadway) projects images from that painting onto a blank white backdrop, re-creating it dot by dot, color by color, and—together with the actors—turning Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte into a vivid, three-dimensional wonder. Later the projections fashion human facsimiles and help blend art and reality, past and present, and the effect is so beautiful, so remarkable, that the “bad” light projections created by a character in the second act are jarring and funny and sort of sad; Buntrock’s production demonstrates just how well technology can be used to play on Seurat’s painting, so it’s pitiful to watch a character fail so badly at doing just that.

I’m getting ahead of myself here—I haven’t yet described the premise of Sunday, and I do like to play at being a “real” critic—but encapsulating the story, such as it is, is all but impossible. Sunday really doesn’t tell a narrative: it’s a musical think-piece, almost Stoppard-like in its delicious stew of ideas about art and life, art and commerce, form and chaos, inspiration and stagnation, artists and muses and everyone else. In the first act, Seurat focuses single-mindedly on developing his groundbreaking techniques and completing his ambitious painting. In the second, a century later his great-grandson, an artist working in the 1980s, creates an homage to his forebear’s work.

Sondheim’s music finds inspiration in Seurat as well. Much of it relies more on texture than melody: meticulous staccato rhythms, open shimmering chords, and bright orchestration evoke the painter’s style beautifully. Both styles are cerebral, yes, but dynamic and hypnotic, too. Hummable it’s not, but anyone who misses the emotional intensity of “Finishing the Hat” or “Beautiful” or the grand “Sunday” finale isn’t really listening.

The cast is universally strong, but Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans, both in dual roles, are clearly its heart. Russell plays Dot, Seurat’s amiable but practical model, with great charm before aging into the elderly and equally charming Marie, grandmother to 1980s George; she is particularly adept at picking up the wry humor in Sondheim’s lyrics and the warmth in his complicated music. Evans plays the two Georges, giving them an attractive fervor without softening the self-absorbed prickliness that makes them exceedingly difficult to live with. And his agile and expressive voice masters both the sharp pops of the staccato passages and the tricky arcs of the legato lines.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Sunday, but I certainly didn’t anticipate being so moved by it. But everything came together so well—the dazzling production design, the pointed witty lyrics, the challenging but entrancing music, the talented cast of musicians—that it served, in a way, as a testament to Sondheim’s own description of art, bringing together “Order, Design, Tension, Balance, Light, Harmony” into something extraordinary, something more beautiful and true than life ever is.