BWW Reviews: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE At Signature Theatre - They Connect the Dots!


Director Matthew Gardiner works wonders with Sondheim musical.

I begin this review with a little trepidation. Why? I just love this amazing musical by Stephen Sondheim but have never reviewed it. I was fortunate to see two wonderful productions - the original Broadway show in 1984 which starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters and the Kennedy Center presentation during their 2002 Sondheim Celebration which was directed by Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric D. Schaeffer which featured Raul Esparza and Melissa Errico.

There is a reason why many theaters do not attempt this musical. It takes a herculean task. First, you need to cast two established performers to play the two leads. You need a creative design team to replicate the famous Georges Seurat painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". You need a costume shop that can put the actors in the same costumes as those in the painting. You need a powerful ensemble who can sing their hearts out. You need a conductor and talented musicians to play the intricate orchestrations. You need a sound designer who can help the audience hear each and every wonderful lyric. You need a projection designer who can add a dash of excitement to Act II. You need a lighting designer who can add the necessary touches. And finally, you need a talented Director who can pull all this together. Well, I am happy to report, Signature's production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE has them all!

The Pulitzer Prize winning musical is a fictionalized story about the inhabitants of French artist Georges Seurat's painting which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. The work contains 48 people 8 boats, 3 dogs, and one monkey. Not all are replicated yet there are two dogs and a monkey. The final version was completed in 1884 and it took two years to complete. The artist was known for painting of tiny dots and allowing the human eye to turn them into a multitude of colors, now known as pointillism. Seurat named his technique Chromoluminarism. This was the beginning of the neo-impressionism movement.

How ironic that when playwright James Lapine named the female character in the painting and mistress to the artist, DOT. How clever.

Playing the leading role of George is Broadway veteran Claybourne Elder who nails his complicated role as an obsessive artist who lives for his art (I wish he had a better beard). He ignores his love interest Dot, the amazing and talented Brynn O'Malley. I am a huge fan of O'Malley. She was superb in SHE LOVES ME at the Arena Stage and has plenty of Broadway experience (WICKED, HAIRSPRAY, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) and the revivals of SUNDAY and ANNIE. I saw her perform at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ opposite Tony Danza in Jason Robert Brown's HONEYMOON IN VEGAS slated for Broadway this fall. She is a joy to watch, has great comedic abilities, and a lovely voice. She truly tackles the role of DOT in Act I.

O'Malley opens the show with the touching and at times hilarious number "Sunday in the Park with George" as she is posing for the artist. She's hot and tired and wants to make sure George knows there is "someone in this dress!" Director Gardner cleverly has Dot apply powder to her face and powder to the same syncopation as George dabs his staccato like brush strokes to his painting. Nice touch.

When they return to the studio, George promises Dot a night at the Follies, but gets engrossed in his painting sing "Color and Light". When Dot asked to go the Follies, his response is "I've got to finish the hat".

One of the more intriguing numbers is a duet of two dogs sung brilliantly by Elder, "The Day Off" along with the talented and powerful ensemble.

While George continues his work feverishly, Dot meets Louie the baker and O'Malley struts her stuff singing "Everyone Loves Louie".

George later again sings about haunting "Finishing the Hat".

When Dot finally tells George she's pregnant and will be leaving for America with Louie, the two sing the brilliant and powerful "We Do Not Belong Together".

At the end of Act I, the painting finally comes together in the anthem-like "Sunday". It's goose-bump city.

Act II moves to 1984 with George and Dot's great-grandson (named George and played by Elder sans beard) is a struggling artist in America and he is unveiling his latest piece of eclectic art which is computer-generated called "Chromolume #7). Kudos to Robbie Hayes , Projection Designer, for his clever work. George sings about the new way for artists to survive in "Putting It Together". O'Malley puts on a grey wig to play the 20th century George's grandmother (the 19th century George and Dot's daughter) named Marie who is in a wheel chair. O'Malley excels in this role and sings the lovely "Children and Art".

One of the highlights is the duet "Move On" sung by George and Dot (who returns from Act I in a ghostly way) where Dot tells George to forget his critics.

The final number is a "Sunday" and the goose bumps and tears return as the painting comes alive and you see George remove glasses from a young girl and a chain descends from above for Dot to use as a leash for her monkey.

The talented ensemble must be mentioned. They include Evan Casey, Susan Derry, Erin Driscoll, Marie Egler, Mitchell Hebert, Valerie Leonard, Joseph Mace, Gregory Maheu, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Angela Miller and Paul Scanlan.

Jon Kalbfleisch conducts a superb group of musicians. I can still hear Amy Smith's last two notes on the horn. It was a nice touch to see their photos enlarged on panels that come from each side of the stage at the end of the show. They use the original orchestrations by Michael Starobin (his first Broadway gig) which are terrific. Signature neglected to include him in the program and should add his huge bio.

The entire creative team did extraordinary work: Daniel Conway (Scenic Design), Frank Labovitz (Costume Design), Jennifer Schriever (Lighting Design) and Lane Elms (Sound Design).

What is Sondheim's fixation with hats one might ask? I noticed the songs about a hat and recalled the lyric from his COMPANY "Does anybody still wear a hat" sung by the late Elaine Stritch. Then I went to the best source, the composer's wonderful book entitled "Look, I Made a Hat". He addresses this very subject. British critic Michael Ratcliffe pointed this out in his program note at London's Royal National Theatre when SUNDAY was produced there in 1990. From GYPSY there is "Hey, here's your hat.". There's "Hat's Off" from FOLLIES. And there is "It's Called a Bowler Hat" from PACIFIC OVERTURES. Sondheim attributes this by saying "it's the jaunty tone and the ease in rhyming that attract me - two sound reasons." The bacc cover of the book is a photograph of the composer standing in front of the painting in Chicago taken by James Lapine.

Signature seems to always add to the enjoyment of theater patrons. In front of the theater are cut outs of the show's characters and you can take your photo next to them. There was also an unfinished copy of the painting in the lobby where theatergoers could attach little dots to complete the painting. For sale in the gift shop are mugs tote bags and a lovely canvas with the graphic design of the play featuring O'Malley. I wish they also sold the CD and DVD of the original Broadway cast.

I will always remember Tony night when LA CAGE AUX FOLLES beat SUNDAY for Best Musical and recall Jerry Herman's comment accepting the Tony implying that people still liked "hummable tunes". It still irritates me. But I also recall in 2008 when IN THE HEIGHTS won for Best Musical, composer Lin Manuel Miranda exclaimed, "Look Mr. Sondheim, I made a hat where there never was a hat."

Another musical about an artist is coming to the Kennedy Center, LITTLE DANCER, a world premiere musical about Edgar Degas's sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen". It runs Oct. 25 to Nov. 30 at the Eisenhower Theater and features Boyd Gaines and Rebecca Luker. Susan Stroman directs and music is by the talented team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Follow the development of the show at

SUNDAY continues at the Signature until September 21, 2014 with discussion nights August 27 and September 9. What a way to open Signature's 25th Anniversary Season. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or visit

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From This Author Charles Shubow

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