Grande Follies

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Anyone who goes to the I'lle de la Grande Jatte today is bound to be disappointed. I went as a student in Paris to see the patch of land, still floating in the Seine, that inspired the famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. If George Seurat's portrait is to be believed, the lush green island was The Grove or 3rd Street Promenade of its time. Today, the island is entirely absent of elegantly dressed women--to say nothing of bathers or artists. It's hard to imagine this lonely, concrete plot ever serving as a desirable place to spend a weekend.


I feared similar disappointment when the producers at Reprise! announced they were mounting a staged, concert version of Steven Sondheim's musical about Seurat. Twenty years ago, Sunday in the Park with George was cheered as one of the finest and most innovative Broadway shows ever--becoming only the fifth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its legendary turns by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters were captured on film--now available on DVD--and their work, along with the breathtaking production by co-author James Lapine, has long been considered insurmountable.

There have been admirable revivals of Sunday in the Park--notably a production at Kennedy Center five years ago--but most have been curatorial efforts, aimed at preserving the work, rather than finding something new in the material.

Enter Jason Alexander.

Alexander had a small part in the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, the show Sondheim wrote right before Sunday in the Park with George. Twenty-five years and millions of 'Seinfeld' dollars later, Alexander is now directing this local production of Sondheim's ode to art and artists. Perhaps, like those who travel to Seurat's island, Alexander is directing Sunday in the Park with George in the hopes of reliving the past, or recreating the Broadway of yesterday where he worked as young actor.

Whatever his inspiration, Alexander has put together the most ambitious Reprise! show ever. Instead of a staged concert version, Alexander has delivered a fully blocked, fully costumed production. That he has done so much with minimal rehearsals for a short, two-week run seems almost like folly. On opening night, the singers were still struggling with their lines, the musicians wrestling with Sondheim's tricky pointillist score--no doubt, the show will be much more polished this weekend; but after Sunday evening's performance, it's over.

Why go to this trouble? Well, because Sunday in the Park with George is probably the highest achievement of musical theater as a personal, expressive artform. Even in this production's roughest moments--and there are many--Sunday still shines as a work of art. Alexander's directorial handiwork suggests he feels this way too. There are small touches indicating he has spent hours with the work and thoroughly understands why Sunday is so special. While he clearly is in awe of Sondheim's show, he thankfully doesn't treat it like gospel. He adds some nice gags and is unafraid of doing things differently than the original Lapine production.

For those who haven't seen Sunday in the Park with George, Alexander's version provides a fine introduction to the work; for those who have, it is, like a trip to the island today, an ultimately bittersweet experience. Yes, it offers a chance to hear Kelli O'Hara, a true musical star in the role of Dot--Seurat's simple but knowing muse. Her numbers brim with potential. But when O'Hara isn't singing a solo or duet with George (played by Manoel Felciano) the music is spotty at best--with some of the choral numbers sounding particularly unfocused.

For those wanting perfection, rent the DVD; for those wanting inspiration, don't miss this dogged attempt to prove that music and art can still be brought to life on stage.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through this Sunday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.