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Where Review: Sunday in the Park with George

Georges and George at Signature Theatre

Sunday in the Park with George, in a luminous, color-filled production that connects all the dots—science with poetry, music with painting, art with entertainment—grandly celebrates the opening of Signature’s 25th anniversary season.

 The theater does itself proud with a loving rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning musical. (Signature, after all, has become America’s most respected house for Sondheim.) Even after 30 years, the work invokes the originality and crowd pleasing stir of Georges Seurat’s 1886 art-history-making painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” with its 48 folks, 9 dogs and a pet monkey poised on the Parisian isle. 

 Sondheim’s work, like Seurat’s, features many moving pieces with 16 players (most of whom play multiple roles) and 18 musical numbers that are less arias than extensions of dialogue.  Director Matthew Gardiner makes it all work with a calculated pace and elegant formality that, for the most part, evokes a more restrained era when bustles hindered women’s movement, parasols provided relief from the sun, and beards decorated men’s chins.

Claybourne Elder, with an appropriately stiff posture and unrelenting stare, portrays the focused, if obsessed, artist who sought an enhanced level of color by painting small dots of different hues that, in a viewer’s eye, coalesce as a single color.  Brynn O’Malley is heartbreakingly poignant as the suitably-named Dot who, as Seurat’s lover, proudly bears his child but loses him to his all-consuming work, marries another man and, as Seurat’s painting itself ultimately did, moves to America.


Act Two (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Act Two (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Costumes by Frank Labovitz and wigs by Samantha Hunter are fittingly elaborate and, to our eye, amusing, but polite—not upstaging the work of art projected stage rear. The scenic design by Daniel Conway and lighting by Jennifer Schriever are effectively bifurcated, gentle and respectful in the first act in keeping with the late 1800s and mechanically industrial in the second act’s modern setting. The musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch and sound design by Lane Elms project the lyrics and dialogue, even when, at Gardiner’s direction, they drop to a whisper.

Most importantly, this drama acknowledges the angst of the artistic life—can one be both creative and have meaningful relationships? In the opening moments, Seurat encounters a blank canvas, and in the final fade, his great grandson-American artist George contemplates an empty screen. The passion that dehumanizes Georges resurfaces in his descendant who just may be headed for some sort of enlightenment amidst his own dabs of color—the pixels of electronic media.

 Theater goers will be dotty over this production.

 Through September 21 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.  www.signaturetheatre.org