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  • Time Out New York / Issue 646 : February 13, 2008 - February 19, 2008
  • By George, he’s got it
  • Daniel Evans repaints a musical icon for Sunday in the Park with George.
  • COLORFUL CHARACTER Evans gets behind the art.
    Photograph: Joan Marcus

    Most musicals that have entered the canon, such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof, are inextricably associated with their original production and the stars who headlined them. Many of Stephen Sondheim’s form-breaking shows, on the other hand, have lived on—even been improved—in richly reimagined revivals.

    But if any title in that pantheon has seemed captive to the magic of its original conception, it is Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the 1985 work inspired by French Pointillist painter Georges Seurat. Directed by Lapine (who also wrote the book), Sunday began as a Playwrights Horizons workshop and later moved to Broadway, where it was as legendary for dividing audiences as for the outsize stars around whom the lead roles were shaped: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

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  • Immortalized in a live-performance taping for PBS, the original Sunday also featured Tony Straiges’s witty pop-up set designs, which ingeniously re-created some of Seurat’s masterpieces, (most notably A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). These seemingly inimitable elements, combined with the script’s time-jumping two-act structure and the Olympian difficulty of the score, have made Sunday an infrequently revived curiosity.

    Admirably undaunted, London’s Menier Chocolate Factory scored a hit with its 2005 revival, which transferred its efforts from the company’s drafty 190-seat warehouse to the West End; it opens at Studio 54 next week as the show’s first Broadway revival, coproduced by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

    How did Menier beat the odds with this oddity? For one thing, director Sam Buntrock, calling on his experience as a digital animator, hired Timothy Bird to design deft, unobtrusive video projections that would represent Seurat’s art. And he cast two classically trained British actor-singers, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, as Seurat and his lover-model, Dot. After all, if you’re trying to reclaim iconic roles for the repertoire, why not hire repertory actors?

    “I’ve only done four musicals, and the first was seven years ago,” admits Evans, an impish but intense Welsh actor with a fat résumé, who plays both the painter Seurat and his artist grandson (also named George) about 100 years apart. Once he got the role, Evans duly banished the cast album and DVD from his mind and used an approach familiar from his work with another great dramatist. “With both Sondheim and Shakespeare, structure is meaning,” he says. “If something is difficult to sing or to say, they mean it to be difficult.”

    Perhaps more than any other of the show’s characters, George has persistently been seen as a stand-in for the composer. “I always thought it was amusing when people automatically assumed [George] was Steve,” says Lapine, who went on to write Into the Woods and Passion with Sondheim. “I guess ’cause the guy had a beard. But look, anything any writer does is autobiographical on some level.”

    Lapine says he has avoided seeing Sunday revivals until now. How does the masterwork look to him after nearly a quarter century? “It’s so fuckin’ arty, isn’t it?” the director muses. “When I see it now, I say, ‘What a peculiar show.’ It remains quirky—very personal.” On the other hand, Lapine thinks the musical holds up precisely because its central dilemma—about an artist putting his art ahead of his nearest and dearest—isn’t really so arty, after all. “People get consumed by their work, it takes over their lives.” Indeed, in the opening number Dot pegs George as “bizarre, fixed, cold.” (Interestingly, Sondheim’s shows have often been accused of emotional chilliness.)

    For Evans, playing the role is a “nightly battle with the audience’s need to connect” with him. He believes the character dearly wants both his art and his relationships to work, but fails. The original George, Mandy Patinkin, attributes the disconnect to the painter’s youth. “His lack of years didn’t give him the ability to multitask,” Patinkin says. “He could make the painting great, but something had to be sacrificed. He didn’t know how to separate from his work.”

    Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 31, having never sold a painting; his singular achievement wasn’t recognized until decades later. Acclaim for Sondheim’s musicals has often been similarly delayed, and Sunday is no exception: Though it won some critical raves and the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Broadway audiences and Tony voters received it coolly, and it ran just 18 months.

    The warm buzz and audience response at Studio 54 is thus gratifying to Lapine. “I’m kind of amazed that it’s in this 1,000-seat theater and people are standing up and cheering,” he marvels. “That’s not what they did 20 years ago, to say the least.”

    Sunday in the Park with George is at Studio 54.

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