Into Masquerade Theatre's immense white set, the painter Georges Seurat purposefully strides. He throws out his arm like a sorcerer as a simple arpeggio of an unresolved chord is played. "White," says Seurat. "A blank page or canvas." Another chord plays, and the music sweeps upward, lilting and simple. The background slowly fills with color: the green of trees, the blue of a river. "The challenge," he says, "bring order to the whole."
More chords are heard, filled out this time with thicker orchestration, as trees descend and fill the space. A boat appears. Yes, that is a river, after all. Characters in late Victorian garb stroll on and assume poses, as directed by Seurat. Horns come in with breathtaking leaps in a fanfare of creation. The artist has conjured life from the absence of color. As Seurat will say later, he has created a hat where before there never was a hat. The stage is now complete, and the show officially begins.
This is the thrilling opening to the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George, about French pointillist painter Seurat (Luther Chakurian) and how he created his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It's an opening that displays love for theater, as we get to see how stage magic happens right before our eyes. That's part of the wonder of this show — how an artist creates, what motivates him, what choices he makes, what choices he discards.
Zilkha Hall at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-861-7045.
Sunday in the Park with George
Through February 27.
This is one of Sondheim's most personal works, imbued with a warm nostalgia and regret at time passing. It's also filled with radiant melodies and an eagerness to please, which were never his prime attributes. For years, detractors had labeled Sondheim's musicals cold and unfeeling, brittle and bitchy. After the disastrous reception of his previous Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim was ready to jump ship. Fortunately, he didn't.
He changed partners, dropping veteran director Harold Prince, who had guided the early classics (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sweeney Todd), and hooked up with young writer/director James Lapine (March of the Falsettos). The concept musical gave way to a more intimate book musical, and the iconoclastic life and career of Georges Seurat, who set the art world of Paris into convulsions with his radical method of painting, was just the right subject at the right time to revive Sondheim.
Act One is masterful: an intricately constructed, almost "impressionistic" series of scenes that one could study to learn how to build a compact little musical drama. Like the painting itself, as well as the subsidiary theme of what it means to be an artist, the biographical Act One is made up of little pieces from Seurat's life — arguments with lover Dot (Kristina Sullivan), his standing among other artists in France at the time, his dealings with his emotionally distant mother (Allison Sumrall), and the daily lives, loves and prejudices of the people with whom he has populated his canvas.
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Like Seurat's tiny dabs of color that coalesce into images by the science of eye-to-brain optics, bits and pieces from Seurat's life come into later focus with haunting, emotional wallop. By the time the painting is finished and all elements have been put into their proper place by Seurat in the wrenching song "Sunday" — and Dot, with Seurat's baby, is off to America with Louis the baker — one could weep with how potent the force of creation can be, and what toll it takes upon the creator and those who have to deal with him.
The youthfulness of Lapine shows itself with a second act that has never completely worked, even though the musical won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, a distinguished honor indeed — only eight musicals have ever been so awarded. It's the musical's weakest link, as we're catapulted into the present day, where Seurat's great-grandson, also an artist, is at an artistic impasse. His troubles seem fairly tangential to what's gone before and don't connect with us like Seurat's richly emotional story, even though there are two of Sondheim's most expressive songs yet to be heard, "Children and Art" and "Move On."
Except for Seurat's phony crepe beard, Masquerade Theatre embroiders Sondheim with customary vocal polish and dramatic chops. Chakurian and Sullivan are picture-perfect as obsessed artist and discontented lover who must always come second to his obsession. Sumrall deserves special praise for her detailed turn as Seurat's mother, who laments the passing of time in one of Sondheim's most wistful ballads, "Beautiful."
The colorful, clever set design by Amy Ross, along with the witty period costumes by Libby Evans, the fluid direction by Phillip Duggins and the exceptional playing from the orchestra under maestro Richard Spitz, brings the complex world of Seurat/Sondheim to vibrant stage life. It is an intriguing world, indeed, replete with harmony, color and Sondheim's most ravishing music.