For his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat chose a fairly remote island on the Seine about four and a half miles from Notre Dame Cathedral. He studied, sketched, and painted between 1884–'86 and made minor revisions in 1889. During that time, the Eiffel Tower was planned, constructed, and completed. The wrought-iron structure had an estimated 2.5 million rivets. Seurat painted his “ordinary Sunday” with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of pontillistic pinpoints.
The precise placement of each dot changed the relations of the others. Observers had literally to connect them to see the colors blend: how red next to blue blend into violet. Seurat even forms shadows from combinations.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George is a musical diptych. Act One follows Seurat’s composition of the famous painting; Act Two’s set at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1983, where Seurat’s great (and illegitimate) grandson George performs his latest piece, Chromolume #7. He works with a laser machine and millions of impulses. “Every minor digital sound is a major decision.”
The obvious link between the two acts: the state of the artist in his era. Seurat lives in his work. Even his mistress, the aptly named Dot, is just another fleck on his canvas; for modern-day George, “it’s all about politics.” He’s had to schmooze and self-promote so much, he’s lost his way.
As Ion Theatre’s in many ways fine production shows, there are far deeper links between the two acts. Each subject, in the painting and at MOMA, is a point of view. “Connect,” as Georges and George keep insisting, and they’ll alter the lives around them.
Blake McCarty’s terrific projections follow the work-in-progress and include a brief history of the art produced in between. Slides also appear on a large, diaphanous canvas: we see the artist from inside the painting.
Sondheim said Seurat's the missing character of La Grande Jatte. With impressive understatement, Jon Lorenz gives him a stern, single-minded passion and George the opposite: a chaos of fragments, much like his Chromlume #7, that skitter in all directions.
Talk about contrasts, Melissa Fernandes must play Dot, Seurat’s lusty, neglected lover, and Marie, her 98-year-old daughter. Whether she’s corseted at the park or wheel-chaired at MOMA, Fernandes sings with joy and energizes the stage in a truly special performance.
The kicker, for me, came when Dot powdered herself with pontillistic daubs.
The ensemble cast had some opening-night unevenness (the overplayed pastry bit broke the subtle tones of Act One), but capable work came from Devlin, as Seurat’s mother and Blair Daniels, pundit, and Wendy Waddell as Jules’s officious wife, Yvonne (who envies Dot) and as Naomi Eisen, an out-there artist.
Costume designer Janet Pitcher Turner had a tough task. Knowing that lovers of the painting would gripe at any mistake, she must dress the characters in Act One with a Seurat-like eye. And she did.
Ion is staging Sunday at the James S. Copley Auditorium in Balboa Park. Though the seats are comfortable, they have sight-line problems. And Mark Danisovszky and Daniel James Greenbush’s grand pianos, house right, carry the show with Sondheim’s minimalist, staccato score, but the sounds dominate the right side of the space.
When Sunday premiered in 1984, many critics didn’t know what to make of it: no plot, no dancing, no take-home, hummable tunes! No recognizable formula, for that matter. It doggedly refuses to spoon-feed the audience with significance.
But it offers advice. The words “see” and “look” appear often, suggesting that it’s up to the audience to connect the dots.
(corrected 7/11, 10 a.m.)