Name the three greatest living American dramatists. I'll have to hurry you... Time's up: they're Edward Albee, David Mamet and Stephen Sondheim. Sceptics doubting that a composer can really dramatise ideas - and in so derided an artform as the musical - should rush to Sam Buntrock's eye-widening reimagining of Sondheim's 1984 show Sunday in the Park with George.
The sheer ambition of this musical leaves most others standing. Art vs life is hardly a new theme for music theatre, but Sondheim and bookwriter James Lapine aren't interested in romantic generalisations. Their breathtakingly original treatment of the idea makes trenchant universal observations by cleaving to the dramatically particular.
As the suspenseful opening arpeggio rings out, an animated charcoal pencil line dashes across the set's austerely white walls. Not only is this a supremely confident start, it's the production's signature. Buntrock is also an animation director, a perfect skill with which to conjure the creation of Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Sondheim's score audibly mimics pointilliste technique, matching notes with the beautiful dabs of colour and light we watch in the projections.
With less of a plot, more a set of parallel perspectives on their portrait of the artist, Sondheim and Lapin banish bio-pic clichés. The first act vividly displays "the art of making art" with the people from the painting arguing and moving effortlessly out and back into the canvas in a manner that must have influenced Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. One of Seurat's models is his lover Dot (Anna-Jane Casey) who can't cope with his dedication to art and knowingly settles for second-best by leaving him and moving to America, where, 100 years later, the second act is set.
Traditionally, productions have foundered after the spine-tingling first act climax where everything simultaneously fuses in perfect musical and visual harmony to create the complete painting in front of you. Buntrock's surprise achievement is to solve the second act.
George's descendant, also an artist, is creatively stuck. Buntrock cuts the text and forces us to focus not on George's flawed new work but his passionate hope. The emotional musical resolution of his past and his vision of his future now feel dramatically vindicated.
The show's success is rooted in Daniel Evans's performance as both Georges. His voice and body are thrillingly connected in the utterly convincing creation of character and dramatic situation. Whether floating his notes above the stave to express rapture or darkening down with self-disgust, you understand exactly what his passion costs him.
His performance is all the more impressive as Buntrock's direction of actors is less assured than his impressive control of ideas. Several cast members work too hard in isolation. The more relaxed they are in performance the stronger the show grows.
A show about art is flirting with danger. In this pin-sharp production, Sondheim proves that those who dare can, indeed, win.
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