Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sunday in the Park with George


When I arrived in Toledo, Ohio for admittance to The Benny Ford Clinic, I was a shambles. The flights had been delayed. There was no time to arrange for a proper limousine to collect me at the airport and I had to stuff myself and all thirty-seven pieces of Vuitton into the back of a taxi driven by a cigar smoking Lebanese. The staff at the clinic had no suite waiting - I was expected to share a sorry looking linoleum cell with two other women. As I sat on my little cot, I started to cry. I had truly hit bottom and was ready to rebuild my life into a better, cleaner tomorrow.

My cell mates turned out to be lovely people; Niki, a Japanese origami artist who was recovering from a bad bout of Afrin nasal spray addiction and Mo, a long distance truck driver with multiple tattoos and a long history of amphetamines. They sort of took me under their wing and helped me through the first few days of shocks as I stripped my soul bare in meetings, revealing intimate, personal secrets and the roots of my problems with that Special K coffee additive that had brought me to such a sorry pass. I was not allowed internet access for much of the first few weeks which explains my long silence. I've been here now for nearly a month and am better, faster and stronger than I've ever been before.

I feel like I'm starting my life out again as blank canvas which put me in mind of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George which I recently had a chance to revisit on DVD. This 1984 Broadway offering was a boutique musical examining the nature of art and its creation through the lens of the artist Georges Seurat and his masterwork, the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte which currently hangs in the Chicago Art Institute. Seurat, now considered a genius, founded the pointillist school of post-impressionism which focused as much on the science of optics and color as it did on art. His paintings used little dots and dabs of color which the eye mixes at a distance into a variety of hues, sort of an early version of the dot matrix color printer. He died young and, as he completed few canvases and achieved no success in his lifetime, little is known about him.

In the play, we meet Georges (Mandy Patinkin), the painter and his mistress, Dot (Bernadette Peters). Through a series of scenes and monologues, we learn about Georges need to break through to a new kind of art and his interest in color and the visual aspects of painting and Dot's frustrations with a man who puts the act of creation ahead of his interpersonal relationships. As Georges works on his monumental new canvas in his studio, we hear him derided by a more famous artist of the day, we see his problems with his mother, slowly wandering off into senility and his attempts to enter the heads of the people he sketches wandering in the park whom he decides to put in his painting. We meet the figures of the painting, shop girls, servants, a boatman, a baker, slumming aristocracy and learn a little about them. At the end of the first act, Georges takes these people and his ideas and uses them to compose his brilliant visual tapestry which is created on stage before our eyes.

The second act is not a straightforward narrative. Rather than return to the story of Georges, we skip ahead to the present day and the museum in which the painting is housed. Here Georges and Dot's illegitimate daughter, Marie (Peters), now an elderly woman and her grandson, George (Patinkin), an artist are attending a party. Modern George is also an artist, working in lasers and colored lights, attempting to reach through to something new but feeling stymied and repetitive both in his art and in his life. It's not until he travels to the now urbanized island of La Grande Jatte and meets up with Dot in his reveries that he's able to make a connection and move on to something new. The play ends with him pondering new possibilities and ways to go, personally and artistically.

Much has been made of Sondheim and Lapine having written a perfect first act, and then destroying audience good will with an ambiguous and complex (and to some, unnecessary) second act. In my opinion, however, it is the second act which gives the piece its richness and resonance. The first act is merely the story of a painting and creation. The second act makes it much more human, showing the need of the individual to connect with family, heritage, culture and how the past both inspires us and holds us back. The climax of the second act in which the 20th century George and the 19th century Dot sing the song Move Onto each other is a metaphor for the human experience.

Sondheim's score uses the pointillism of Seurat's paintings as its inspiration. Songs are created from small fragments of melody that repeat and intertwine and eventually form great crescendos of music, especially in the chorale, Sunday which accompanies the painting's final creation. There is little of the traditional 32 bar AABA structure here and the score is somewhat dense and requires several hearings to understand properly. One song, Putting it Together will be familiar due to Barbra Streisand's recording and Xerox commercials. The pointillism also extends to the orchestrations and the visuals, especially the stunning set and costume designs that recreate the world of the painting.

Patinkin and Peters are old Broadway pros and, even though the tape was made at the end of a long run, they bring a freshness and vitality to their parts. They have a palpable chemistry, even within the limitations of a videotaped play. They are ably supported by a large supporting cast which includes several faces who were soon to become famous including Brett Spi
(ner Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Charles Kimborough (Murphy Brown). However, the show belongs to its two leads and when they're on stage you look nowhere else. 

The DVD has an excellent audio transfer. The picture is occasionally a little muddy due to the problems of working with videotape in a theatrical environment. As a treat, there is an extra commentary track with Sondheim, writer/director James Lapine, Patinkin and Peters recorded several years ago as they sat around a table watching this production on tape.

Automatic dress. Pop-up dogs. Erased tree. Eiffel tower references. Stolen glasses. Bathers at Ansieres. Cocktail conversation. Technological foul-ups. Off-stage deaths.

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