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Where the dots connect

Reprise! revisits 1984's `Sunday in the Park,' the Pointillistic musical that revealed so much of Stephen Sondheim.

February 02, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Often accused of being cool and austere, Stephen Sondheim proved once and for all that just because a musical ducks obvious sentimentality doesn't mean it's devoid of deep feeling. The occasion was "Sunday in the Park With George," the groundbreaking collaboration between Sondheim and playwright-director James Lapine that arrived on Broadway in 1984 and put an end to the notion that the uncompromising genius of the tough-sell American musical could be summed up, in the words of one of the show's more pointed lyrics, "All mind, no heart / no life in his art."

Naturally, there were many dissenters still angered by Sondheim's "artiness," his refusal to write "hummable" tunes and the deficiency of what they shortsightedly perceived as "human interest." But as the more elaborate than usual Reprise! concert staging at UCLA's Freud Playhouse reminds us, these naysayers weren't merely wrong, they were blind to a giant theatrical step forward.

Mind you, this presentation of "Sunday," which opened Wednesday, is very much a work in progress and can't be compared to the 2005 London staging by the Menier Chocolate Factory, which seduced critics with its incandescent design and breathtaking intimacy.

But the leads, Manoel Felciano (who received a Tony nomination for his work in the recent John Doyle revival of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd") and Kelli O'Hara (the shooting Broadway star from "The Light in the Piazza" and "Pajama Game"), can hold their own against anyone. They need better direction than Jason Alexander can provide, but there are glorious intimations of the heights they're capable of. If anyone's planning a major revival of "Sunday," these two talents should be at the top of the casting list.

In a decade in which musicals swelled with special effects and saccharine scores (grossing billions for Andrew Lloyd Webber), Sondheim turned introspective about his own craft. Always enticed to spin shows from the most unlikely premises, he took as his starting point the painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by the French Pointillist Georges Seurat. And freely imagining its creation in Part 1, he invents another artist named George in the second. The latter incarnation is his American great-grandson, an envelope-pushing "neo-expressionist" who, having tapped out the innovative potential of his high-tech "Chromolume" series, finds himself at a creative crossroads that bears comparison to the one Sondheim experienced after the 1981 critical and commercial debacle of "Merrily We Roll Along."

"Sunday" exposes from manifold vantage points the tormenting journey of the artist committed to making a lasting contribution to his medium. Sondheim and Lapine (who won the Pulitzer for their joint effort) home in on the solitary sacrifice such concentration requires, underlining the selfish, relationship-stunting aspects of the artist's relentless task.

The tumultuous attachment between the painter George (a semi-fictionalized Seurat) and his aptly named model/lover Dot, rendered with postimpressionist suggestiveness, underscores the human cost of pursuing perfection. Later, the contemporary American artist George's interaction with his grandmother (Dot and the first George's out-of-wedlock daughter) stresses the need to integrate your heart into everything you do, whether painting a masterpiece or raising a family. "Connect, George, connect," he exhorts himself after the song "Children and Art," recognizing that an empty life not only isn't much fun but it can also dry up inspiration.

It's of course wonderfully ironic that the most moving and original portions of this modernist musical involve art more than people. "Finishing the Hat," the great ode to those talented obsessives who spend their days "mapping out the sky / finishing a hat," brings a raw emotional urgency to Sondheim's underlying theme, as does the harmonic coup de theatre in which Seurat's painting is finally brought to life onstage at the end of Act I.

If ever there was a musical that had you happily singing the sets on the way home, it's "Sunday." The visual design is absolutely integral to the work's overall vision, which explains why this Reprise! offering comes more fully furnished than usual, with painted panels and scrims that turn the stage into a three-dimensional canvas.

Still, it's not a full-scale production, and one shouldn't go in expecting hallucinatory imagery. There are clumsy patches when the book plods and the actors seem sluggish. Also, the caricatured handling of the minor characters gets a bit sloppy, particularly in the notoriously challenging second act.

But these flaws are redeemed by the exquisiteness of O'Hara's singing and the simmering presence of Felciano, who has a lovely midrange voice even if he has trouble with the trickier numbers, such as "Color and Light," in which precision is more important than melodic flow.

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