Playwrights: Stephen Sondheim . and James Lapine. At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets: 773-327-5252; www.stage773.com; $38. Runs through: Oct. 31
Act I of Sunday in the Park with George takes place in 1880's Paris, Act II in 1980's New York. Act I concerns real artist George Seurat and his stupendous pointillist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte ( in the Art Institute of Chicago ) . Act II concerns his fictitive great-grandsonalso Georgean artist who creates computerized light, sound and music sculptures dubbed "Chromalumes." In this 1984 Broadway musical, Seurat is so obsessed with his firm artistic principles that he cuts himself off from emotional life, while his great-grandson is so vague and fearful about artistic principles that he cuts himself off from emotional life.
One can rely on Porchlight Music Theatre for a superior musical production, which they deliver again in this instance, but that doesn't solve the weakness of Act II vs. magical Act I, in which Seurat's great painting is thoroughly deconstructed only to be constructed againby the cast in three dimensionsbefore our very eyes. But that deconstruction can be confusing, and I struggled at firstbit by bit putting it together to find the dramatic focus intended by director L. Walter Stearns.
As ever, musical director Eugene Dizon glorifies the Stephen Sondheim scoreone of his most lyricaleven in reducing it for a seven-piece orchestra. Never before have I appreciated the minimalism of so much of this show's instrumental music, with the orchestra playing delicate wavering, repetitive, rhythmic lines under vocals that alternate between broad/soaring and fast/pizzicato. Also, the intimate production ( 150 seat theater, about ) allows one to hear the lyrics with new clarity, revealing words and phrases missed in seeing previous productions.
The lyrical music, however, is in distinct contrast to the brittle, aloof figure of Seurat and charmingly aloof modern George. As fashioned by Sondheim and James Lapine, they don't give the audience a lot to like. Sondheim almost always chooses to subordinate the potential emotional power of his music to an intellectual concept, in this case the nature of the artist and the artistic process, shouldered by the two Georges. One marvels at Sondheim, but he's not your man if you seek musical sentiment or more than momentary warmth.
The large cast is sparked by wide-eyed Jess Godwin in the dual role of Dot/Marie and statuesque Brandon Dahlquist ( through Oct. 10 ) as both Georges. They are a well-voiced and handsome couple, especially in Mina Hyun-Ok Hong's extravagant period costumes, so very rich in texture, pattern and detail. Director Stearns and his highly creative design team deliver one of Porchlight's most complex productions, vivid with projections and emblematic dot-like scenic devices. It's a very large scenescape which requires distance to be seen bestjust like the Seurat paintingso ask for seats at least four rows back.