Arguably Stephen Sondheim's most personal and self-indulgent musical, veiled as it may be, Sunday in the Park With George has long been to Sondheim fans a kind of badge of honor—you could prove your musical theater cred if you'd memorized certain songs or had watched the Mandy Patinkin/Bernadette Peters production on stage or on PBS more than once.
It's replete with Sondheim's signature minor keys and verbose, self-consciously clever poetry, and it's also a show that doesn't have a particularly pretty song or hummable melody for its entire 90-minute first act. It does, however, bridge the visual world of late impressionist painter Georges Seurat—and his obsessions with color, composition, and light—with music in brilliant and delightful ways, and it tells a century-spanning story that stems from one brief love affair in Seurat's short but productive life (he died at the age of 31 having produced just a handful of major works).
SF Playhouse's new production, which opened on July 11th, does this complicated show justice in numerous ways, not the least of which by pulling off the not-insignificant feat of recreating, on stage, Seurat's most famous work, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. That is the stunner closing gesture of Act One, more so than the music itself, which is nonetheless lovely—and for a theater company this modest, the tableau is still effective so long as you're sitting a few rows back (the further the better). But before then we've been introduced to George (John Bambery) and his lover Dot (Nanci Zoppi), as well as George's disapproving mother, his successful painter friend Jules, and a collection of other characters who form the basis for all the main figures in the painting.
Zoppi is brilliant, endearing, and funny as Dot, at times invoking Bernadette Peters in her singing of this highly difficult part. Bambery is equally stellar in the lead role, and brings to it a manic energy that extends into the parallel universe of 1984 in the second act.
Most importantly for Sondheim, Sunday in the Park With George is the story of an artist and his art, the sacrifices an artist makes to be productive, the frustrations of having to face critics, and the ultimate importance of making the art itself. Yes, there's a bit of a love story, and some wittily woven plot threads by book writer James Lapine, but this show is Sondheim's mea culpa to everyone he ever canceled dinner plans with to work, and his lyrical plea for forgiveness, via the voice of a Neo-Impressionist painter who died in 1891. It is, quite simply, Sondheim's love letter to creativity.
"Stop worrying if your vision is new./ Let others make that decision, they usually do. You have to move on." That is one of the key lyrics in the central, ceiling-shaking duet that helps to close the second act of the show, and you can hear in it Sondheim's own personal mantra when it comes to critics (who famously panned the musical he had written just prior to this one, Merrily We Roll Along). It's also one of the most satisfyingly poignant moments in the show as well, when the coldness of Seurat's creativity gets injected with humanity.
Director Bill English handles this material with terrific confidence and ingenuity, putting on this ambitious show on a relatively small stage, and the ensemble rises to the occasion on all fronts, clearly aware that it's an honor just to get to perform this Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning show. The lighting design, projections, set design, musical direction, and costumes (by the talented Abra Berman) are all of the highest order as well.
Once again, SF Playhouse proves its mettle when it comes to interpreting large-scale, complicated musicals, and this one is as professional and polished a production as you'll ever see.
// Through Sept. 8 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (Union Square); tickets are available at sfplayhouse.org. Or, you can subscribe to RushTix to get discounts on all kinds of shows around the Bay Area.
This post originally appeared on Opening Night SF.