Reviewed by David Spencer
The very difficult thing about reviving a "concept musical"-which can be loosely described as one in which underlying theme and physical presentation are inextricably linked to content-is that the original production is always the one in which all hands were creating the collective gestalt; in which the writers, the designers and, overseeing all, the director, were making a very particular and intricately assembled statement. And thus also creating a template. To vary from the template, to put a new spin on the material, almost inevitably bites a revival on the ass, because the intention of the musical is as vital as its book, music and lyrics; and revisionism doesn't sit easy.
But I've seen it work. Only rarely, but enough times to reveal how it's possible.
The trick is, the director has to start by honoring the original intention. Doesn't mean he can't add to it, further clarify it (if he can), amplify it or, without distortion, paraphrase it. Doesn't mean he can't even-albeit with the greatest of care-comment on it, in the sense of acknowledging the passage of time and the maturity of audience sensibility...when appropriate. But honoring that intention and understanding it at a gut level is key.
Because then you can take the next step: which is building the edifice anew from the same foundation. This is important not only for preserving the integrity of the musical, but for the involvement of audiences to whom it will be new. Say what you will about John Doyle minimalist revival of Sweeney Todd (and my on-the-record opinion fell on both sides of the fence), it's fatal flaw was the assumption of familiarity, which left countless audience members confused and dissatisfied, wondering what the hell everyone else was jonesing about.
With regard to the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, care of the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54-an import from London, replete with its original stars and an American supporting cast-it has to be acknowledged that director Sam Buntrock has achieved something of a small miracle. In dramatizing the world of art, and in particular, throughout Act One, circa 1885, George Seurat's creation of his revolutionary pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte," the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (librettist and original director) is highly dependent upon a production that tracks not only the emotional life of the main characters, but the gradual assemblage of the painting's elements, and it has to do both coherently. Since Sunday is not particularly a plotted musical, but a character study made barely linear by the fact that its events occur chronologically (and Act Two focuses on George's great-grandson, a conceptual artist trying to make his own mark in 1984), this is not easy to do. Because on top of everything else, you have to maintain dramatic tension while making a painter's gradual effort seem like something energized and dynamic enough to power a musical.
But as it turns out, Buntrock is not merely a theatre-baby, but a television veteran, and at that one who has spent years producing animations for commercial purposes and the BBC. So where the original '84 Sunday cleverly added scenic elements on cutout flats that moved in and out on tracks, popped up from the floor, floated down from the ceiling, representing sections of the Seurat canvas, Buntrock offers a new-millennium equivalent-projected computer animations that literally bring Seurat's style and progress to life. These also work magnificently in Act Two, when the "present day" George reveals his Chromalume #7, here realized as a magnificently retro homage to 80s-style abstractionism.
All this said, the conceptual soul of a musical is nothing without the actors to pull it off, and here too, Buntrock has cast to perfection. And while it's impossible to eradicate the memory (or the cast album indelibility) of Mandy Patinkin as the Georges, and Bernadette Peters as Dot (mistress to the first) and Marie (grandmother to the second), Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell nonetheless manage to stamp the roles with marks that are just as right, but never beholden. In this production it's very clear that each character is pushing the boundaries of his or her emotional limitation-it's not a new theme in the piece, but Buntrock is emphasizing different aspects to tease it more consciously to the surface-and the leads offer some magnificent new values and nuances. Mr. Evans' is a portrait of artistic courage and emotional fear; he seems to be a man who believes he knows how far he can go before breaking, yet longs to discover that he may be wrong. And Ms. Russell, as ever the goad for him to move those extra degrees, must herself risk heartbreak as a consequence of exposing need. Vocally they are expert and affecting interpreters of Sondheim's complex score.
Judging from the cast album of the London production, its first supporting cast seems to have been younger, in keeping with a staging which started life in a small, 120-seat house, moved to a 700 seater and only thereafter to a large house. On Broadway, fully mainstreamed, the cast members who should be (or at least sound) more mature and experienced are, and among the notables are such distinguished performers as Michael Cumpsty, Mary Beth Piel, Jessica Molaskey, Ed Dixon and Alexander Gemignani. Alongside an equally proficient younger generation of performers such as David Turner, Santino Fontana, Stacie Morgan Lewis, Brynn O'Malley and Jessica Grove-among others-they make for a fine ensemble, every bit the equal of the original.
Finally, there are the new orchestrations for the reduced group which has followed every iteration of this production. Since Michael Starobin's originals were fairly piano-centric and not conceived for a large group (as I recall, it was something like 11), Jason Carr has for the most part been able to preserve the score's grace and sensitivity with only five: piano, synth keyboard, violin, cello and woodwinds. I only felt a lack in the Act Two number "Putting it Together" -it may have been a sound-design lapse, but I rather think he hasn't quite captured its frenetic pulse (though the message comes across, albeit not with breathless consistency).
This revival gets it right, whether you're in the market for a hugely satisfying revisit or a cathartic introduction. And if it's not precisely a hat where there never was a hat...it's a new model that holds its own next to the classic...