- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

The French painter Georges Seurat has no trouble connecting the light-filled dots for his masterpiece, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," in Stephen Sondheim's coolly luminous 1984 musical "Sunday in the Park With George."
His problem is connecting with people, most notably his mistress, Dot (played by Melissa Errico), a lovely artist's model with rippling hair and a smile that just begs to be painted by Monet. He treats the world as fodder for the canvas. Even his mother (Linda Stephens) keeps a stately distance and only converses with her son as he hunches over a sketch pad.
The tension between art and life is explored with shimmering precision in "Sunday in the Park with George," part of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center. The play centers on the creation of the masterpiece and the sacrifices to bring such a work into the world. Seurat developed the painting technique pointillisme, in which small dots and brush strokes blend together when seen from a distance.
The first act takes place in the late 1880s, as George, played by Raul Esparza, creates the painting. The second act is set nearly 100 years later, with Georges and Dot long gone, leaving only the magnificent painting and their daughter, the elderly Marie (Miss Errico). Marie tries to teach her artistic grandson George (Mr. Esparza) a jaded 1980s conceptual artist how to open up his heart to love and his head to genius. When George goes to Paris and visits the island where the painting is set, the ghost of Dot appears, and with exquisite tenderness, advises him to "give us more to see" in the glorious song "Move On."
Director Eric Schaeffer, also artistic director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, makes a clear case for both love and art.
Dot needs to hear the words "I love you" and it is wrenching when Mr. Esparza says that he simply cannot speak the words she so longs to hear. He is a bit incredulous, since his love for her is spread all over the canvas for "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Not to mention that he is breaking new ground with his dots of pure color and light.
Dot is played with delicacy and lightness by Miss Errico. When she emerges from the bath and the audience has a glimpse of the curves of her bare body, she is a painting made flesh.
In the second act, which takes place in the early 1980s, Dot is long gone and Marie, her daughter by Seurat, is in a wheelchair. Miss Errico plays Marie with a trembling fire. Her song "Children and Art," sung in a devastating croak, reveals that Dot did indeed eventually see the love splashed all over the canvas and passed that love of art and family onto her child.
The secondary roles the background figures in the painting, and most played by Signature Theatre actors also are vivid and rich. Donna Migliaccio brings humor and deftness, not to mention her marvelous voice, to the roles of the dutiful Nurse and the hilariously over-the-top American nouveau riche with a taste for French pastry. Jason Gilbert makes a quick, striking impression as Dennis, the technician of the second act, and Sherri Edelen is bright and sharp as one of the silly shop girls. Linda Stevens is nothing short of towering as George's mother, someone wistfully mired in the past; her song "Beautiful" is a high point.
No production of "Sunday in the Park with George" would be complete without the creation of the famous painting at the end of Act 1, as the cast hypnotically walks into place and the backdrops descend.
Scenic designer Derek McLane, lighting designer Howell Brinkley and costumer designer Anne Kennedy have, in effect, created the illusion of being in a beautiful, important painting. Even the proscenium is a series of arches made out of white canvases.
"Sunday in the Park With George" is not easy to warm up to it is a cerebral show. But if you enter the musical the way an artist lives in the painting, the show glimmers like no other.

"Sunday in the Park With George"
WHERE: The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater
Through June 28
$20 to $79

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