If ever a production deserved a West End transfer it is Sam Buntrock's ravishing rediscovery of the 1984 Sondheim musical, Sunday In The Park With George, which opened to rave reviews at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London last December. What made it special in that small-scale venue survives and gains in power in the larger, but still intimate Wyndham's Theatre.
A highly personal meditation on "the art of making art" and on the various types of cost this entails, the show is structured as a diptych. In the first half, we see Georges Seurat at work on his groundbreaking 1886 painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". The idling Parisians in the picture come to life in a series of little paintings before being manhandled, at the throat-catching climax, into the fused perfection of the finished work of art. Sondheim's flecked, jabbing score provides not only a musical equivalent of the painter's pointillist technique, which constructs pictures out of thousands of tiny dots of colour, but also a nagging, obsessive atmosphere that sums up Seurat's psychology: this was a man that always preferred patterns of dots to personal relationships.
Then, after the interval, we are spirited to contemporary New York to meet the artist's (fictional) great-grandson, a conceptual light-sculptor.
This production demonstrates true originality, with enchantingly witty projections and astounding technical wizardry that supports, rather than overshadows, the performances - performances that are also superb. The authority of Buntrock's take on the show is evident from the opening moments when an animated charcoal line darts across the pure white-walled gallery of David Farley's set, only to be rubbed out for second and third thoughts.
A swag of curtain is magically transformed into a tree. The blank set is gradually filled with images of men sculling on the Seine and of bouncing cartoon dogs conversing on miniature canvases. There's a haunting sense of the impermanence of natural beauty and of the fixing and revising power of art. The design flushes red for George's lovely duet with his elderly mother, where the melodic lines seem to have the dreamy downward drift of leaves in early autumn. And the Wyndham Theatre is ideal for the beautiful frame-within-frame effects. In the haunting segue between the two periods, the painting recedes into its own iconic afterlife - seen in a photographic representation of the Chicago gallery where it hangs.
The graphics have bite as well as charm. Seurat's stage-managing of the figures in his masterpiece is mockingly mirrored in the great "Putting It Together" number in the play, where the cynicism of posh fundraising bashes is signalled when the American George leaves insincere, hobnobbing clones of himself all over the room he is strenuously working. It's funny. If people were valuable to Seurat principally as objects on which light falls interestingly, human beings are important to his great-grandson's art only as commercial sponsors.
The consolations at the end of the play let it down slightly. Making a pilgrimage to the now bleak and industrialised Grande Jatte, George Seurat receives a transfusion of hope from the ghost of his forebear's lover. But this is thanks to a case of mistaken identity, not because he has now earned the right to it morally. Any misgivings, though, are overcome by the passionate conviction of the central performances. Singing with compelling ardour, Daniel Evans brilliantly captures the troubled single-mindedness of Seurat and the emotional disorientation of the Eighties George. Humour, warmth and an affecting mix of gustiness and sensitivity inform Jenna Russell's gorgeously sung portrayal of both Dot, the painter's model and mistress, and her ancient granddaughter. You can see why the production reportedly moved Sondheim to tears.
Booking to 2 September
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