"Sunday in the Park With George" is pretty; trouble is, you can't simply pass on to the next gallery after a bit and take in another show. The new Stephen Sondheim musical, which opened last night at the Booth, doesn't bear looking at or listening to for very long.
James Lapine, who has provided the static and even foolish book, has tried to peek into the lives of those idling 19th century holidayers in Georges Seurat's pointillistic masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Unlike Alice through the looking glass, he has found little of genuine interest there. The result is a gorgeous-looking sound-and-light show (scenery by Tony Straiges, lighting by Richard Nelson) from which you almost literally come away humming the scenery, in the old saw.
Lapine, who also staged the show, appears to have been so awestruck by the canvas itself, which rests in the Chicago Art Institute, that he has created more of an act of homage to the French neoimpressionist than a play. And Sondheim's inspiration seems to have been at a low ebb most of the time, his enormous talent shining through only in brief flashes. Elsewhere, in spite of the painterly, complementary stippling effects one might expect in the score, effects heightened by Michael Starobin's bright orchestrations, Sondheim seems merely to be repeating himself.
During the first act, Seurat (Mandy Patinkin) is seen mostly sitting around in the park (the island is on the Seine just outside Paris) absorbedly drawing figures on his sketchbook for his grand canvas. The principal figure is his carefully costumed model-mistress, played by Bernadette Peters and named Dot (possibly a pun on his painting technique, for his real mistress, who bore him a son, was named Madeleine). Seurat has little time for Dot even in his studio where, painstakingly applying thousands of little dots or strokes of color, the whole blending to produce a shimmering effect when observed from a proper distance, he ignores her pleas to take her nightclubbing. She winds up marrying a baker, a congenial chap who takes her and her infant (by Seurat) to Charleston, S.C. Seurat, by the way, died at 31, having completed only seven works in this style.
In Act Two, we meet Seurat's great-grandson and his grandmother, the infant grown up (Patinkin and Peters), in a 1983 gallery where he has created, with the help of a humorless SoHo-type composer (Dana Ivey, seen in the first half as the lofty wife of a rich rival painter), a "Chromolume" show honoring Seurat and made up of darting laser beams and photo projections on the globular head of an object resembling a "Star Wars" robot. Mesmerized by his great-grandmother's diary, he returns to the island, now spiked with high-rise apartments in place of the earlier trees - there to meet with the original Dot, bustle and all, and to stroll off with her, arm in arm.
As I have indicated, Straiges, beginning with a pure-white stage shortly filled with costumed figures, descending trees, cut-out dogs, pop-up soldiers and other items (cut-outs of the 1983 artist, incidentally, are set here and there in the gallery reception to "chat" or "listen" to guests), has had a field day in designing the show, as has his lighting man, Nelson. "Color and light," the principal obsessions of the scientific-minded painter, are given their full due on stage, and even in song (a Patinkin-Peters duet). Need I add that Peters is adorable as Dot, and Patinkin makes the most of his stick of a role (both roles). Among the better Sondheim numbers are Seurat's "Finishing the Hat," Peters' title song, and a couple of others with a burbling, wave-like orchestral accompaniment, as well as the company's chorus piece called "Sunday."
In common with his book, Lapine's staging is too stiff and reverential by half. Finally, the painting itself says far more about the people in it than the show does. Sondheim, as usual, is to be admired for taking on a challenging subject, but he was barking up the wrong tree, or trees, this time.
Personally I was nonplussed, unplussed, and disappointed by Sunday in the Park With George, the new James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim musical that opened at the Booth Theater last night.
It is not simply that it tells us more about the short, uneventful life of the painter Georges Seurat than many of us may wish to know. It is not even that it persists in offering a somewhat simplistic and bathetically pretentious course in art appreciation.
The difficulty with the show is that - despite the almost superman efforts of its two splendid stars, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters - it simply doesn't sing.
Sunday in the Park never really takes off. It just lies there like an expensively ornamental paperweight, or a cuckoo clock that has lost its cuckoo.
The idea, which apparently first came to Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the show, is audaciously ambitious. It is to show us the creation of a work of art, the formulation of an artistic style based on scientific principles, and to reveal, in passing, the struggles of an artist for recognition.
Now this is not your run-of-the-mill subject for a musical. It is attempting to say something of moment about the actual process of creation, and is using as its starting and finishing points an actual painting, Seurat's remarkable and well-known A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, a work that took two years to paint and is recognized as a landmark in modern art.
First the painting itself has to be recreated on stage - in itself a formidable challenge to the set designer, and costumiers, the first being Tony Straiges and the second being Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward.
Paintings and styles of painting have been suggested before on the stage and on screen - one remembers that whole clutch of French painters from Degas to Dufy in Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris - but nothing so careful or so considered has been attempted before. This is a work of inspired reproduction.
The blend of the painting and actual people, the way the painting assembles, dissolves, and reassembles before one's eyes, is extraordinary and fascinating. Straiges is to be particularly congratulated on the way in which he has so well captured the feel of the painting without actually resorting to Seurat's own pointillist technique, which would have looked clumsy blown up to stage size and contrasted oddly with the real characters inserted into the setting.
But one can hardly make a musical out of a tableau vivante, however adroit and diverting that may be, and Lapine has been constrained to construct a plot. Unfortunately the plot thins.
The idea is to have Seurat more obsessed with science and his work than with his model-mistress, who has been given the pleasantly pointillist name of Dot.
Dot, impregnated by Seurat, is married off to an obliging partner and bundled off to America. In the second act - and at times I wondered why there was a second act - the time is the present, and Seurat's daughter and great-grandson (a laser artist, which provides the opportunity for some mightily impressive "special effects" by Brian Ferren) are involved in a lecture at an art institute.
After some satirical digs (more pokes than digs) at the art establishment, the scene returns to La Grand Jatte, where the young Seurat returns on pilgrimage, only to find the place overgrown with ugly buildings. But don't worry, the painting wins out in time for the finale.
In most ways this seems to be far more Lapine's musical than Sondheim's, and Lapine's book does, in my view, trivialize and vulgarize art and artist alike.
As a sample of the vulgarity let me cite an American tourist couple, having a homesick couple of days in Paris, who are last seen carting off a couple of Renoir paintings as souvenirs. A small visual joke - but a cheap one.
There is triviality in some aphorisms - such as "jealousy is a form of flattery" - but worst of all, art itself is trivialized. A museum director, in charge of the laser show and faced with a power cut, announces: "Unfortunately, no electricity, no art - there is no juice!"
That comes unfortunately close to describing Sunday in the Park With George, but there are, of course, the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. A score, particularly one of this comparative complexity, is not easy for a trained music critic to assess on one hearing - if only we poor benighted drama critics could be offered a demo-tape or something - but what did occur to me was Sondheim's difficulty in establishing a style.
Some of the songs are jaunty, some are lovely - including one number called Beautiful, touchingly sung by Barbara Bryne, and a ballad for Miss Peters about the immorality of art and children - but the overall flavor and texture of the music is not especially distinctive, while even in the lyrics Sondheim's normally felicitous verbal facility seems to have temporarily deserted him.
What could be done with the show has been done - and this is nowhere more evident than in the stalwart performances by the tremulously touching Miss Peters and the handsomely assertive Patinkin. There are plenty of other attractive cameo performances from the likes of Charles Kimbrough and Robert Westenberg.
But when all is said and sung, the spectacle appreciated, and the performers admired, it might be better to go to the park with anyone than to spend it boringly in the theater with George.
In his paintings of a century ago, Georges Seurat demanded that the world look at art in a shocking new way. In ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' their new show about Seurat, the songwriter Stephen Sondheim and the playwright-director James Lapine demand that an audience radically change its whole way of looking at the Broadway musical. Seurat, the authors remind us, never sold a painting; it's anyone's guess whether the public will be shocked or delighted by ''Sunday in the Park.'' What I do know is that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work. Even when it fails - as it does on occasion - ''Sunday in the Park'' is setting the stage for even more sustained theatrical innovations yet to come.
If anything, the show snugly fitted into the Booth owes more to the Off Broadway avant-garde than it does to past groundbreaking musicals, Mr. Sondheim's included. ''Sunday'' is not a bridge to opera, like ''Sweeney Todd''; nor is it in the tradition of the dance musicals of Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett. There is, in fact, no dancing in ''Sunday,'' and while there's a book, there's little story. In creating a work about a pioneer of modernist art, Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim have made a contemplative modernist musical that, true to form, is as much about itself and its creators as it is about the universe beyond.
The show's inspiration is Seurat's most famous canvas, ''A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.'' That huge painting shows a crowd of bourgeois 19th-century Parisians relaxing in a park on their day off. But ''La Grande Jatte'' was also a manifesto by an artist in revolt against Impressionism. Atomizing color into thousands of dots, Seurat applied scientific visual principles to art. Seen from a distance, his pointillist compositions reveal people and landscapes in natural harmony. Examined up close, the paintings become abstractions revealing the austerity and rigor of the artist's technique.
Seurat, here embodied commandingly by Mandy Patinkin, could well be a stand-in for Mr. Sondheim, who brings the same fierce, methodical intellectual precision to musical and verbal composition that the artist brought to his pictorial realm. In one number in ''Sunday,'' Seurat's work is dismissed by contemporaries as having ''no passion, no life'' - a critique frequently leveled at Mr. Sondheim. But unlike the last Sondheim show, ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' this one is usually not a whiny complaint about how hard it is to be a misunderstood, underappreciated genius. Instead of a showbiz figure's self-martyrdom, we get an artist's self-revelation.
In Act I, this is achieved by a demonstration of how Seurat might have created ''La Grande Jatte.'' In a fantastic set by Tony Straiges - an animated toy box complete with pop-ups - Mr. Patinkin's George gradually assembles bits and pieces of the painting, amending and banishing life-size portions of it before our eyes. In the process, Mr. Lapine and the congenitally puzzle-minded Mr. Sondheim provide their own ironic speculations about who the people in Seurat's picture might be. The most prominent among them is identified as the painter's mistress (named Dot, no less, and radiantly performed by Bernadette Peters). The others include such diverse types as boorish American tourists, a surly boatman and a class-conscious German servant.
Yet most of these people are little more that fleeting cameos. As is often the case in Sondheim musicals, we don't care about the characters - and here, more than ever, it's clear we're not meant to care. To Seurat, these people are just models for a meditative composition that's not intended to tell any story: In his painting, the figures are silent and expressionless, and even Dot is but fodder for dots. Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim tease us with their characters' various private lives - which are rife with betrayals - only to sever those stories abruptly the moment Seurat's painting has found its final shape. It's the authors' way of saying that they, too, regard their ''characters'' only as forms to be manipulated into a theatrical composition whose content is more visual and musical than dramatic.
As a result, when Seurat finishes ''La Grande Jatte'' at the end of Act I, we're moved not because a plot has been resolved but because a harmonic work of art has been born. As achieved on stage - replete with pointillist lighting by Richard Nelson and costumes by Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward - the ''fixing'' of the picture is an electrifying coup de theatre. Tellingly enough, the effect is accompanied by the first Sondheim song of the evening that allows the cast to sing in glorious harmony. The song's lyric, meanwhile, reminds us that the magical order of both the painting and this musical has transfigured - and transcended - the often ugly doings in ''a small suburban park'' on an ''ordinary Sunday.''
Act II, though muddled, is equally daring: The show jumps a full century to focus on a present-day American artist also named George (and again played by Mr. Patinkin). This protagonist is possibly a double for Mr. Sondheim at his most self-doubting. George makes large, multimedia conceptual sculptures that, like Broadway musicals, require collaborators, large budgets and compromises; his values are distorted by a trendy art world that, like show business, puts a premium on hype, fashion and the tyranny of the marketplace.
The fanciful time-travel conceits that link this George to Seurat are charming. Rather less successful is the authors' reversion to a compressed, conventional story about how the modern George overcomes his crisis of confidence to regenerate himself as a man and artist. When George finally learns how to ''connect'' with other people and rekindles his esthetic vision, his breakthrough is ordained by two pretty songs, ''Children and Art'' and ''Move On,'' which seem as inorganic as the equivalent inspirational number (''Being Alive'') that redeems the born-again protagonist in Mr. Sondheim's ''Company.''
The show's most moving song is ''Finishing the Hat'' - which, like many of Mr. Sondheim's best, is about being disconnected. Explaining his emotional aloofness to Dot, Seurat sings how he watches ''the rest of the world from a window'' while he's obsessively making art. And if the maintenance of that solitary emotional distance means that Seurat's art (and, by implication, Mr. Sondheim's) is ''cold,'' even arrogant, so be it. ''Sunday'' argues that the esthetic passion in the cerebrally ordered classicism of modern artists is easily as potent as the sentimental passion of romantic paintings or conventional musicals.
In keeping with his setting, Mr. Sondheim has written a lovely, wildly inventive score that sometimes remakes the modern French composers whose revolution in music paralleled the post-impressionists' in art. (A synthesizer is added for the modern second act.) The accompanying lyrics can be brilliantly funny. Mr. Sondheim exploits the homonyms ''kneads'' and ''needs'' to draw a razor-sharp boundary between sex and love; a song in which Seurat's painted figures break their immortal poses to complain about ''sweating in a picture that was painted by a genius'' is a tour de force. But there's often wisdom beneath the cleverness. When Seurat's aged mother laments a modern building that her son admires, the Eiffel Tower, Mr. Patinkin sings that ''all things are beautiful'' because ''what the eye arranges is what is beautiful.''
What Mr. Lapine, his designers and the special-effects wizard Bran Ferren have arranged is simply gorgeous, and the fine supporting players add vibrant colors to their pallette. Mr. Patinkin is a crucible of intellectual fire - ''he burns you with his eyes,'' says Dot, with reason - and the wonderful Miss Peters overflows with all the warmth and humor that George will never know.
Both at the show's beginning and end, the hero is embracing not a woman, but the empty white canvas that he really loves - for its ''many possibilities.'' Look closely at that canvas - or at ''Sunday in the Park'' itself - and you'll get lost in a sea of floating dots. Stand back and you'll see that this evening's two theater artists, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine, have woven all those imaginative possibilities into a finished picture with a startling new glow.