Georges Seurat (Matt Clemens, left) works on his new painting while neglecting his girlfriend, Dot (Laura Griffith), in Sunday in the Park With George (photo courtesy of Megan Leigh)
Despite all the awards it’s won, Sunday in the Park With George received both praise and brickbats when it opened on Broadway in 1984. One complaint was that the second act was an inferior and unnecessary addition to its predecessor. After seeing the Stephen Sondheim work for the second time, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion: I find the musical a satisfying experience precisely because Act 2 completes the emotional and artistic journey that began with the sometimes cold and unfocused Act 1. “The art of making art,” as Sondheim declares in one of the show’s best-known songs, “is putting it together.” With a book by James Lapine, who directed the Broadway premiere, the musical is a fictionalized account of French painter Georges Seurat’s creation of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in 1884. In Act 1, Georges (Matt Clemens) is so intent on finishing his pointillistic masterpiece that he neglects his lover and model, Dot (Laura Griffith). Around them, various characters observe Georges and are sometimes observed by him as he sketches figures he plans to incorporate into the painting. Some have personal connections to him, such as his mother (Linda Dorff) and mentor/artist Jules (Christopher Moore Griffin), while others are more or less strangers. In general, Act 1 is most interesting when it focuses on Georges and the people closest to him. It ends with the completion of his painting, a triumph purchased at great emotional cost. Act 2 fast-forwards to late-20th-century America and focuses on Dot’s elderly daughter, Marie (Griffith), and on Marie’s grandson, George (Clemens). Though he’s an avant-garde artist who’s based his latest work on Seurat’s famous painting, George refuses to believe the evidence that the French master was his great-grandfather. The musical’s sketchy plot means that, like the painting that inspired it, Sunday in the Park With George requires viewers to stand back and connect the dots. It’s a task that can be difficult or easy, depending on how well the production transmits the work’s emotional resonance. Short North Stage’s production, sensitively directed by Sarna Lapine (James Lapine’s niece), transmits it extremely well. Clemens and Griffith have the acting and vocal chops it takes to carry off the lead roles, but every cast member performs at the same high level. Local theater veteran Dorff is particularly delightful as Seurat’s fearful mother. Also first-rate is the visual-design team, which is especially important in this painting-inspired musical. Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams (set), Michael Boll (lighting) and Terese Wadden (costumes) create stage pictures as beautiful as Seurat’s original creation. The aural “pictures” are just as lovely, thanks to musical director Nils-Petter Ankarblom and the fine singers and musicians. Though melodies are not Sondheim’s strong point, the show makes the most of the few memorable songs, including the heartbreaking Children and Art (sung by Griffith) and the aforementioned Putting It Together (sung by Clemens). As a bonus, the sound is better than it’s ever been in a Short North main-stage production, with every word coming through clearly. Like the painting on which the musical is based, Short North Stage’s latest production is nothing less than a masterpiece. Short North Stage will present Sunday in the Park With George through Oct. 27 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Oct. 19) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or