SAN FRANCISCO — Having once seen "Sunday in the Park With George" on Broadway, and then seen it again in Long Beach (where the Broadway production was lovingly and meticulously reproduced by the Long Beach Civic Light Opera on the original Broadway sets and in the Broadway costumes), one begins to wonder: Is there no other way to do this show?
The answer is that there is. And the American Conservatory Theatre's just-closed inaugural production of its 1986-87 season demonstrated that there is. Its differences from the original were not large, but they worked.
Director Laird Williamson with designer Richard Seger went a long way to prove that, while the show is locked into the framework of the Georges Seurat painting ("A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte") to which this musical is inextricably tied, it is possible to offer quite a few variations within its boundaries.
Beginning, of course, with the sets. For all of "Sunday's" first act, we inhabit the French Impressionist's mind and his sketches for "La Grande Jatte." With him, we erase and do over whatever he doesn't like--losing a tree here, acquiring a sailboat there. Until the final image of Act I--when everything comes together to form the completed picture--there are, as George might say, "so many possibilities." More than one might imagine.
Seger's painterly layers of hillocks and trees (gorgeously bathed in Derek Duarte's exquisitely translucent light), swept in and out of view at the slightest change of the artist's whim. They reminded us that the characters in Seurat's painting were not the only ones to undergo transformations over the two-year period of its creation. So did the landscape they inhabited.
In Act II, set in the present, director Williamson's influence was more keenly felt. There were such significant directorial departures, as the aged Marie (played by Melanie Chartoff, who also plays Seurat's mistress, Dot) recovering her youth and leaving her wheelchair to actually dance as well as sing the first half of "Children and Art." And there was the whimsical injection, at the top of the act, of museum visitors, observing the Seurat painting in perfect, separate synchronicity, as they moved to the words of their docents-on-cassette. It was as much a statement about the collective isolationism of the 1980s, as it was a humorous and effective way to introduce us to the 100-year leap forward in time.
Williamson's staging was laced with just enough imaginative and often subtle ideas as to enrich the experience without betraying what Lapine and Sondheim had in mind.
Respect for the text was there, along with considerable latitude to express it. Even in Act I, and the exquisite "Finishing the Hat," Williamson chose to have Dot forget her about-to-become-famous hat on the ground next to George (a melancholy Jeff Keller, vocally rich and looking a lot like Sondheim). It provided the chance for an extra emotional tug, when Dot returned to look for the hat, and it changed hands that yearned to touch but never did.
Musically, the orchestra was a bit thinner than it should have been and Chartoff, who displayed a pert and delicious sense of humor as Dot, could have been vocally stronger. Yet these complaints are minor in terms of total enjoyment.
There was enough expansion of the emotional range of this "Sunday in the Park" (from funny to serious to touching), enough fresh visual excitement in the combined efforts of Seger/Williamson/Duarte (and in the chromolume sequences of Act II, smartly engineered by The Register Mark) to be profoundly reassuring.
The message implicit in this production's textural divergence is that the musical's future depends only on the very thing it is so sharply focused on: creative daring--and a decent budget.