Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters created the roles and I thought they could not be bettered. But their British counterparts now over two decades later, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, bring new dimensions to the dual roles that each plays in the musical’s scheme. At their curtain calls at the matinee I saw, they blew the roof off the place as the audience rose in unison to give them a standing ovation and shouts of bravos. Evans in the roles of painter George Seurat in the first act set in 19th Century France and of his grandson George, a sculptor of light, set in the New York art world of the 1980s, is remarkable. He finds in each character the incongruent impetuses that make up an artist’s swagger: an unbounded ego lashed to a lovely insecurity, a sweetness leavened with cynicism, a wanton addiction to the discipline of creativity. Russell is less sexy than Peters was in the role of Seurat’s mistress, Dot, in the first act. But she is earthier and more moving. In the role of the grandmother Marie (the daughter of Seurat and Dot) in the second act, she is feisty and touching. The rest of the American cast is marvelous as well, especially Mary Beth Peil in her roles as the Old Lady in the first act and the art world aficionado, Blair Daniels, in the second, and Santino Fontana as the Soldier in the first act and, in the second, as Alex.
The first act of the musical still works better than the second, but the production’s young British director, Sam Buntrock, who got his start in animation, brings an astonishingly fresh eye to the proceedings and utilizes his animator’s expertise to the show’s advantage. There are some breathtaking touches — visual punctuations that highlight the show’s subject matter which involves the art of creation and how science can either enable it or deaden it, depending on your perspective. Seurat, in a letter stating his thoughts on the process, could have been summing up Sondheim’s take on the making of his own art, when he wrote, “Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of the similiar … considered according to their dominance … in gay, calm, or sad combinations.”
Two of the finest examples, in fact, of Sondheim’s art and philosophy are found in this show, the songs, “Finishing the Hat” and “Move On.” And at the end of each of the acts there is the transcendent, “Sunday,” during which Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, is assembled for our benefit in all its pointillist and, yes, human glory. To paraphrase Mama Rose in Gypsy, a character in another musical for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s score and Arthur Laurents wrote the book, in which perhaps Sondheim’s philosophical take on art was summed up best: the audience can forgive you for a lot if you give ’em a great finish.
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An Afterthought: If you’re a Nathan Lane fan — and who really isn’t — then perhaps you should catch him in David Mamet’s afterthought of a play, November, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Mamet won the Pulitizer Prize for Drama the year before Sunday in the Park with George did for his Glengarry Glen Ross. November won’t win any prizes. But the audience howls with laughter at the vulgar language and hoary jokes with which Mamet has packed this sitcom of play about a Bush league president of the United States. The plot revolves around selling favors and pardoning turkeys and gay weddings. Lane gets every laugh — and even some that aren’t in the script. Laurie Metcalf, as his lesbian speechwriter, is as expertly deadpan as Lane is in his frantic genius. The only real turkey on stage, however, is the play itself.
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On the Stage: Come Back, Little Sheba and Next to Normal [tr]
On the Stage: The 39 Steps and Almost an Evening [tr]
On the Stage: Is He Dead? and The Little Mermaid [tr]
On the Stage: Holiday Fare — The Drowsy Chaperone, West Side Story, Xanadu and The Color Purple [tr]
On the Stage: Doris and Darlene and The Homecoming [tr]