PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sunday in the Park with George — 100 Years To Connect Dots

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sunday in the Park with George — 100 Years To Connect Dots A full century separates the two acts of Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical musing on the old art-over-heart conflict, which returned for some further reflection Feb. 21 at Studio 54 in its first Broadway revival.
Jenna Russell, Daniel Evans, Sam Butrock, Alison Horowitz, Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Grove, Alexander Gemignani, Brynn O'Malley, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.
Jenna Russell, Daniel Evans, Sam Butrock, Alison Horowitz, Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Grove, Alexander Gemignani, Brynn O'Malley, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Act I divides its time between an art studio (not 54, necessarily) of a French painter who could very well be Georges Seurat and an island in the Seine just outside of Paris where he painted his masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," over the course of two years of Sundays between 1884 and 1886. Act II is also divided — between an American art museum and the supposed setting of the painting.

Put them all together, and you've got — voila! — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Best Play of 1984, if not the Tony winner. That went to Jerry Herman's considerably less cerebral exploration of the creative process, La Cage aux Folles. Which could explain why it has only been back once — for a single, sold-out 10th anniversary performance on Broadway, directed by the original director and book writer, Lapine, and still starring Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Charles Kimbrough, Dana Ivey and Nancy Opel.

This particular production is a London import, from The Menier Chocolate Factory, and its artistic director, David Babani, stood at the entrance of Studio 54, a greeting committee of one. It's also the by-product of some imaginative and quite young minds.

Sondheim arrived at the theatre in his rumpled weatherbreaker and stayed a reasonable amount of time at the afterparty, held in a spacious ballroom at the Sheraton New York Hotel. For the most part, he seemed in buoyant high-spirits with anyone who didn't have press credentials. He doesn't — and probably never did — suffer press lightly, and the Arctic air blasts he puts out effectively keep us at bay. At 77, he still maintains a brisk gait, and that really accelerates when he gets a whiff of the fourth estate in his immediate vicinity.

His collaborator and director on Sunday is only marginally less press-wary. After a startled, "Oh, no!," he manfully stood still for a little lite grilling about their 24-year-old property. Lapine skipped the versions done in Washington as part of the Sondheim Festival and in Chicago, but he reveled in this one. "It's fantastic that somebody else had a vision for it and did something completely different. It's a whole other concept, which is great. It's better to see it that way than somebody who does a kind of version of what you did."

here is, he conceded, a kind of generational torch-passing with this production. "I said to Steve after the first gathering of the cast that it was thrilling to think you write something that's now been passed on, that has inspired another generation of theatre people."

As it always should be, the true star of the show was the director, a heretofore-unknown Brit named Sam Buntrock, who was nine years old when the original show bowed on Broadway. At 32, he doesn't appear to be all that much older (reminding one of the innocent-young-genius look that Jimmi Simpson so effectively affects in The Farnsworth Invention) and it is his singularly unique vision that dominates the evening.

A life in animation has prepared Buntrock well for a life in the theatre. The celebrated artwork springs to life through animation, and from time to time the painting's subjects — passersby, rowers on the river, sunbathers — magically move around on the canvas. "It's the way I think," Buntrock offered meekly. "I think in both theatre and animation terms, and so this show seemed like a perfect fit for these two things. It's a great, universal piece."

It's such a total vision that it's hard to say where Buntrock ends and his helpmates begin, so he clarified the work assignments: "I directed the show. The sets and costumes were designed by David Farley, and the projection design was by a very dear old friend of mine, Timothy Bird, who brought his own ideas to the table for the animation."

In the modern-day second-act, Buntrock's technical wizardry goes into overdrive, splashing the stage with an explosion of colors and images that erase from memory that little laser-show display which seemed so inventive in the original 1984 production.

Also in the second act is an art-party reception where our artist really gets to work the room — like, times three: While he is center-stage, images of him are projected on flats at opposite sides of the stage, and revelers descend and chat those up. On a few occasions, he even talks to himself. It's a delightful, minutely-timed effect, but Buntrock is reluctant to reveal how it is done: "That's a closely guarded secret that I can't go into. It's extremely technical but also very, very easy —and it's very easy for the actor to play."

The closing scene pretends to revisit the site of the original painting, and that too is an optical illusion — one of Buntrock's best. "Actually, I went there in the summer of 2005 and took a variety of photographs, a whole range of photographs, and a digital map artist composited those photographs together in his computer to make it look as though it was identical landscape, but there is no place that is identical on the Grande Jatte. There's no one spot where you can say, 'That's it!' So it's a bit of movie magic to make it match."

In addition to special effects, a couple of key human effects made it over from the original London production, thanks to a hands-across-the-ocean deal struck by Actors' Equity: The American cast of Caroline, or Change got to play London, and Broadway is now treated to Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell. He reprises his performances of a 19th century painter with distinct shadings of Georges Seurat and, in the second act, a George several generations away — the original artist's great-grandson. She's two people in the painting (a mistress named with pointed irony Dot, and her infant, by Act II the 98-year-old Marie).

Does she have a preference of those two roles? Indeed, she does: "I have to say I have a preference for Marie. I love Marie." And the little-old-lady nails her laughs, a reaction she found very gratifying. "It's so satisfying to hear that with one of your classics."

In a word, she found the fact that she's now a Broadway actress "extraordinary. I never thought I'd ever be able to imagine it would happen to me. I'm not just saying that. It has always been a big dream, but I never thought for a minute that I'd get the chance to do it."

For his Broadway debut, Evans presents two exceedingly different images — a very hirsute Georges Seurat of Act I with a full beard and flowing mane, and for Act II his authentic face, clean-shaven and balding.

This two-faced look is new for New York. "In London," he said, "I grew my own beard, which meant I had to have it for both acts, but we decided to get rid of that and have it stuck on with glue, which is why my face is breaking out. Spirit gum eight times a week will do that." The "more naked" look, he reasoned, worked better for Act II: "I can be very, very exposed and much more vulnerable, which I think is more appropriate for Act II because, y'know, the artist has lost his way. It's nice having such a big change as this, now."

Of the five musicals he has done in his life, three have been Sondheims: this, Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse and, last year, a concert version of Sweeney Todd in which he played Tobias. "It's a great honor to work with a great man and a great artist like Sondheim. I feel very lucky to be part of a project where I can get notes from the horse's mouth, as it were — to hear it from the guy who wrote it. That means a lot to me."

His relief at finally getting the piece placed on Broadway was almost visible. "It's been a long hard journey. We started two and a half years ago in a concrete warehouse in South London, and look at us now. It's been a long road, but I feel very privileged to be here."

Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli admitted he'd never seen Sunday in the Park with George before, but he was thoroughly familiar with the music, it being the favorite show of his former Dream co-star and current wife, Jessica Molaskey, who made him inordinately proud with her two performances in the piece (one a bustled and cuckolded matron, the other an extraordinarily funny and disfiguring turn as a hyper-active lesbian composer).

"Absolutely my favorite show of all time, ever," Molaskey confirmed as she strolled around the crowds with daughter Madeleine, who was attending her first opening of a show that starred Mommie. It is, in fact, Molaskey's first opening in several years.

"When Madeline started kindergarten, which was five years ago, I decided I didn't want to take all the time to do a Broadway show anymore," the actress relayed. "Then, somewhere around last spring, I started feeling itchy to do a play and be with actors. You know, it's so exciting. And when this came around, I thought, 'I just have to do it.'"

Not that she's giving up the nightclub life. "I'm lucky enough I can do both. As soon as this closes, I go to The Carlyle for two months with my husband — September to November."

The philandering Frieda who is making proper use of the park (for an assignation) is played by a new working mother, Stacie Morgain Lewis. "I auditioned back in March, had my baby in October and started rehearsing when she was seven weeks old," she said.

Therein hangs an interesting backstory: "When I first auditioned for the show, I was just shy of three months pregnant. Nobody knew — not my friends, nobody. They called and offered me the part, and they said, 'She has the part, but we know she's pregnant. Stephen Sondheim knows.' Stephen Sondheim had told them in the audition that that's who he wanted, 'but she's pregnant.' Flashfoward to almost a year later, we were at a party in his house, and I asked him how he knew I was pregnant. He said Mary Rodgers told him, 'The way to identify a pregnant woman is by the way she carried her hands.' He said, 'I noticed your hands.' Isn't that amazing? What a perceptive person to notice that!"

 

Michael Mayer, Sara Ramirez, Jessica Hecht and Becky Ann Baker, Julia Murney, Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone, Stephen Schwartz, Rob Ashford, Jane Krakowski and Maury Yeston, Euan Morton, Andrew Lippa and Christopher Sieber.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

A bonafide Yorkshire Englishman, Michael Cumpsty brings some amusingly understated bluster to the married British painter who's up for a little love in the afternoon (with the aforementioned Frieda). "When we started, I was much twittier, but they wanted me to pull back from that so I did," he said. His character is vaguely rooted in reality, according to Lapine, who told Cumpsty that "Seurat had a particularly good friend he studied with, and he did a beautiful portrait of him — that's who that is."

Cumpsty has done Broadway musicals before (1776, 42nd Street) "but never," he pointed out with some fear and trembling, "for a living legend. He was at my audition. The fact I got the job meant, I assume, he approved me — so that took away one level of anxiety, but he was incredibly gracious. In fact, there was a phrase I was having a hard time with, and he offered to rewrite it for me. It was incredible — like, I would have my very own Stephen Sondheim phrase for the rest of my life. But then I figured it out, so he didn't have to." Yul Brynner's last Anna, Mary Beth Peil, has a nice contrast in roles — the artist's mother in Act I, and a haughty, heady critic in Act II. "How much fun is that!" exclaimed Peil, who puts subtle touches on the critic that imply an intriguing sexual history. "I think both she and the mother have a very interesting history that influences both Georges."

Alexander Gemignani, who's the beefy, pipesmoking boatman sprawled out lazily on the grass in the left of the painting, goes back a long way with this show — and he remembers it: "I was five when it first came around. My dad [Paul, who was at the opening, as was Alexander's mother, singer-dancer Carolann Page] was the original music director, and I was in the rehearsal room, bouncing around, seeing some stuff.

"It's amazing to be a part of this now — truly, an honor and gift to be able to do these kinds of pieces. They don't come down the pike all the time." But when they do come, Gemignani is becoming an expert at catching them on second bounce. Save for the recent Les Miserables in which he was Jean Valjean, they all seem to have the same signature on them: "There's been Assassins, Sweeney Todd, this and Passion up at Lincoln Center. My fiancee said something really interesting. She said, 'Sondheim is like doing Shakespeare for the theatre. His standard is so singular. From the acting perspective, it's so rewarding. As good as music theatre gets — no, it's never quite as good as Sondheim."

A survivor from that Donner Pass of musicals, Drew McVety made it out of the Lone Star Love fall-out in Seattle in time to sign up for three small roles in Sunday in the Park. For him, the cherry on the sundae was the party that Sondheim threw for the company in his home. "We were lucky," he recalled. "We were there the night he won the Golden Globe for 'Sweeney Todd,' so we were kinda at the center of the universe that night."

Oklahoma-born, Texas-reared Ed Dixon gets two shots at ugly Americans abroad — a South Carolina tourist in Act I and a Texas curator in Act II. "It's the most thrilling thing to be a part of this," he admitted. It's also a relief from his previous exposure to Sondheim — Judge Turpin. "Sweeney Todd is so difficult and so dark that it's upsetting to do. It surprised me. I thought it was going to be such a joy when you get into that hideous head, but after doing it for a few months I was very pleased to take it off. But this [show] is so glorious you want to live in that world. And Sondheim's been around a lot. Openly, he's always very accommodating. He's been supportive and extremely effusive."

At one point in the evening — late — the room was filled two zaftig Ladies of the Lake: Spamalot's Tony-winning original, Sara Ramirez, and the current one who just crossed The Pond, Hannah Waddingham. "I made my Broadway debut on Jan. 18," she chirped proudly, "and I'm here till June 15." Christopher Sieber, her strong-lunged duet partner in the devastatingly accurate Andrew Lloyd Webber ribbing, "The Song That Goes Like This," met her in song in London and persuaded her to make the leap across. "I promised if she did it in America, I would do it with her," Sieber injected, and indeed he did return to his Tony-nominated part, Sir Dennis Galahad. "I leave March 23," he postscripted — to do Shrek with Sutton Foster and a fresh recruit from the Spamalot ranks, Greg Reuter.

While their hubbies were toiling away at "the office" (Dylan Baker at the Barrymore in November, and Byron Jennings at the Lyceum in Is He Dead?), Becky Ann Baker and Caroline McCormick table-hopped with fellow actresses Betsy Aidem and Jessica Hecht.

Baker was one of several Sondheimites who showed up. She and Mario Cantone were among the batch of Assassins (Sara Jane Moore and Samuel Byck) who took over Studio 54 in 2004. Others: Boyd Gaines (who'll be Herbie to Patti LuPone's Mama Rose in the Gypsy that bows March 27 at the St. James), John Weidman, a Sondheim librettist past (Pacific Overtures, Assassins) and present (Bounce, continuing in development); John Doyle, who directed the last two Broadway revivals of Sondheim (Sweeney Todd and Company) and is readying an original for the Walter Kerr on April 17 (John Bucchino's A Catered Affair).

Also attending were Jane Krakowski (heading back to "30 Rock" work — she was Miss Adelaide to Jenna Russell's Sarah Brown and Ewan McGregor's Sky Masterson in London's last Guys and Dolls), Terrence McNally (who had a successful reading of his Kander & Ebb show, The Visit on Feb. 19 and starts work Feb. 25 on Catch Me If You Can), Lauren Bacall, Bob Balaban (still glowing from the reviews he got for directing Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon in HBO's "Bernard and Doris"), Rob Ashford and Mark Brokaw (choreographer and director of Cry-Baby, coming to the Marriott Marquis), Julia Murney, a festering nest of directors (Kathleen Marshall, Bill Irwin, Walter Bobbie, Scott Ellis, Michael Greif, Robert Longbottom and Jason Moore), Taboo Tony nominee Euan Morton (currently readying a nightclub act for The Algonquin's Oak Room), composer Andrew Lippa (whose Jules Feiffer musical, The Man in the Ceiling, had its first Disney reading Feb. 22 with Megan Lawrence, Steven Pasquale, Noah Galvin and Steve Rosen), Primary Stages' Casey Childs (hinting heavily that his current Hunting and Gathering may have a longer Off-Broadway life), Jason Fuchs (young star of Roundabout's super-sleeper, Speech and Debate, which ends its repeatedly extended run Feb. 24), Max Von Essen (late of Les Miz and a recent Jerry Springer survivor), playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman (who was represented recently on Theatre Row with a new play and at home with a new son, named Sam), recording exec Bill Rosenfield (in town from London to prepare the Passing Strange cast recording), Brooks Ashmanskas (freshly signed for Huntington/Williamstown's upcoming She Loves Me — not the Jack Cassidy role as much suspect but gamely against type in the Daniel Massey lead), Tommy Tune, Roger Rees, Susan Stroman, Martin Moran and Michael Mayer.

The cast of <i>Sunday in the Park with George</i> takes its curtain call.
The cast of Sunday in the Park with George takes its curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben