"Artists are so crazy," two dimwitted girls reassure each other as they watch a misanthropic painter sketch them during their weekly trip to the park. "Artists are so peculiar," a dotty old woman chimes in, thus making the verdict unanimous: Artists -- cranky, insidious, sometimes even seditious -- are to be avoided. Well, it's true. Creativity can be an infuriatingly egoistical process. But try to imagine how bland the world would be without it.
Case in point: In the nineteen years since Sunday in the Park with George debuted on Broadway, so pervasive has been its influence on today's generation of emerging theater composers that it's now hard to imagine the American musical theater without it. Yet the show is infrequently staged. "Art isn't easy," the viewer is told, and it's not always easy to take here. This ambitious chronicle of creation is too cerebral for everyone's liking; that's why God created Jerry Herman.
Sunday in the Park with George is structured into two one-act plays, set a century apart. Act I begins in Paris in 1884. The iconoclastic Georges Seurat (who never sold a painting in his lifetime) is feverishly completing his large -- some might say, mystifying -- canvas, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. As he strives to perfect a new pointillist technique -- the image on the canvas is actually an amalgam of dots fused together by the viewer's eye -- Seurat scorns those who are closest to him even as he in turn is scorned by the art-world establishment.
Act II continues the story a hundred years later, when Seurat's now-revered painting is on display in a New York City art museum. At least, we're told that it's on display. In most productions the painting is seen; its very presence is integral to the action. But New Line has elected to pay the canvas short shrift. The result is a Sunday in the Park that works its magic in fits and starts but fails to jell into a cohesive whole. Imagine staging Hamlet without the Dane, and you have a sense of what's missing here.
In New Line's ongoing effort to be different, too often the company confuses notions for concepts. Here, the notion seems to be to stage a dense play on a fashion-show runway. The audience sits on either side, gazing up at the action as they would at passing models. But too often they're gazing at an inflexible postage-stamp stage overwhelmed by actors, many of whom are blocking other actors. So much effort, simply to avoid having to re-create Seurat's painting onstage. Which is what the viewer most needs to see if the musical is to have any context.
Fortunately, the evening is redeemed by the show itself. Stephen Sondheim composed his gorgeous score from a palette containing colors of astonishing beauty and texture. Some of his lyrics -- "Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water/On the green purple yellow red grass/Let us pass..." -- are as pointillist as Seurat's painting. "Putting It Together" is an acerbic chronicle of the hazards of being an artist in contemporary America. "Finishing the Hat" -- "Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat!" -- is a fierce anthem to the creative spirit. The show's final duet, "Move On," possesses a soaring lyricism on a par with the best of Sigmund Romberg or Jerome Kern. New Line's four-piece band does a Herculean job of conveying the inherent artfulness in this lush score.
As Seurat, Todd Schaefer emanates assurance and authority. In Act II, as Seurat's great-grandson, he even finds the evening's underlying conscience. This production is at its most effective when it's most still, and Schaefer and Mo Monahan (as Seurat's mother) share a crystalline rendition of the haunting "Beautiful," in which Sondheim conveys his despair at all the needless changes that insist on destroying the world as we know it.
It's likely that Sondheim would be equally despairing of the changes that have been wrought here. Alfred Hitchcock used to admonish his collaborators, "There's always a better way to do it." Wise advice, that. But change that does not improve on, or clarify, the original is often merely an exercise in self-delusion.