Never Missable: “Sunday in the Park With George,” at the Huntington

October 10, 2016

If you have ever written a poem, drawn a sketch, built a bookcase, knitted baby booties, put together a costume for Halloween, or had a child—there, I think I’ve covered just about everyone—then you have common ground with Sunday in the Park With George.

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Jenni Barber and the company of Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Artistic Director Peter DuBois, playing September 9 – October 16, 2016, Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta.

 

What I mean is, the very fact that you make stuff means that this acclaimed musical, now produced by the Huntington Theater Company, is waiting to speak to you. Its very subject is the nature of art: What obstacles do people face in pursuing it? What drives them? What sacrifices do they make? Why does it demand a blend of accident and design so difficult to achieve?

 

Above all, the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize winner argues that making stuff—creation—is the definition of what makes us human. The act of creation keeps us fully alive while we’re here, and offers our sole chance to live on once we’re not. The things we create—“Children and Art,” as a key Act II song is titled—are the means by which we may hand off something lasting to the generations who come after.

 

To explore those themes, Sunday tells a romantic story, sometimes wryly funny, mostly intensely romantic, of one generation’s legacy to the next.

 

In Act I, set in Paris around 1884, the painter Georges Seurat furiously creates his famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and in so doing alienates the strangers and acquaintances he manipulates into posing for him, not to mention his one true love. In Act II, set in 1984, Seurat’s direct descendant despairs of making art of a very different kind, only to find those of the 19th century reaching out to him (and to us!) to give us heart.

 

I have to say, I get chills up the spine just thinking about this masterpiece and what its effects are, especially at the end of each act. There’s really nothing like it. But I dwell so much on Sunday’s thrilling themes, unique structure, and universality because I would love to persuade those on the fence about this famously complex musical to give it a chance to be their cup of tea at the BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts. Sondheim aficionados have already made their way there long before this report was filed, but any creditable production of Sunday in the Park has a chance to rock an audience’s world.

 

And Peter DuBois’ Huntington production is very creditable indeed.

 

It’s beautifully and clearly sung, for one thing; Sondheim’s intricate words are notoriously difficult to absorb at first hearing, but music director Eric Stern and sound designer Jon Weston have done their jobs thoroughly and well, making it easy to fall into the flow of images and rhymes peppering what could be Sondheim’s best score, executed by a strong singing ensemble.

 

This Sunday is a visual treat as well, with Derek McLane’s “white box” and panels offering a enticing canvas for Christopher Akerlind’s limpid, pastel lighting palette and Zachary G. Borovay’s impressive projections.

 

There are many vivid performances among the ensemble. Aimee Doherty creates, in a few broad strokes, a heartbreaking portrait of a Victorian-era wife who has sacrificed far too much to her imposing artist spouse. (Her own heart breaks a little in Act II, as well, when she essays a brittle art critic.) Melody Butiu and Patrick Varner exude an amusing Boris-and-Natasha vibe as members of the servant class in Act I, and I enjoyed both of Bobbie Sternbach’s turns: George’s now-dotty, now-warm mother before the intermission, and the modern George’s composer collaborator after.

 

The revival’s principal drawback is in the casting of George. Adam Chanler-Berat was a peppy, appealing waif in the Broadway Peter and the Starcatcher, but he lacks the aesthetic weight and intensity to convince as either act’s incarnation of obsessed artist. Jenni Barber is a voluptuous Dot, almost too much so: She’s the principal model for La Grande Jatte and, in Lapine’s telling, Seurat’s inspiration, but the bond of lust drawing them together is practically nonexistent. Chanler-Berat goes through all the right motions but the desperation just isn’t there.

 

A weak George is a drawback to spending a Sunday in the Park with him, but shouldn’t be a deterrent. The show will still astonish you.

 

Playing through Oct. 16, 2016 at the Avenue of the Arts  / BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Tickets available at www.huntingtontheatre.org, or by calling 617-266-0800.

 

 

 

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