The division of emotional labor between men and women has changed significantly since the 1980s—let alone the 1880s. That inevitably dates Sunday in the Park with George, although the Guthrie Theater gives Stephen Sondheim’s 1983 musical a lucid and engaging production.
Sondheim and playwright James Lapine hit their core themes from the opening scene, as post-Impressionist great Georges Seurat (a bland Randy Harrison, familiar from Queer as Folk) takes his sweet time rendering a sketch of the too aptly named Dot (Erin Mackey), his muse and lover. Dot is literally chafing under the demands of George’s art, as she stands sweating in a heavy dress that ultimately unfurls for her to step out-of-body and survey the situation.
Dot loves George, but he’s preoccupied with the creation of what will become his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. She’ll ultimately have a prominent place in that painting, and over the course of the musical’s first act we meet the motley cast of characters who will also populate that crowded canvas.
The aspect of Sunday in the Park that remains most enjoyable is Sondheim’s depiction of this unruly crew being corralled into Seurat’s sedate tableau, and director Joseph Haj excels with his sublime supporting cast.
A talky pair of eligible ladies (Cat Brindisi and Christian Bardin) set their sights on two stoic soldiers (David Darrow and Benjamin Lohrberg). The painter’s mother (Christine Toy Johnson) searches for shade along with her nurse (Emily Gunyou Halaas), who’s planning a risque rendezvous with a lustful coachman (Sasha Andreev). A grumpy boatman (Justin Lee Miller) candidly assesses the scene.
At the center of the story, though, are the tortured artist and the woman who ultimately leaves him for a kind but uninspiring baker (Max Wojtanowicz). In the second act, the show flashes forward to the 1980s, where Seurat’s great-grandson (Harrison again) is an artist celebrating his ancestor’s legacy. He’s at a creative crossroads, requiring Dot to appear from beyond the grave and offer encouragement.
There’s a lot of plot here, but Haj patiently draws out the various strands. The stakes are always clear—and so is the pristine singing, thanks to an impeccable sound mix that incorporates a vigorous orchestra ensconced behind a scrim.
The Wurtele Thrust Stage complicates the task of animating a rectangular painting, but scenic designer Jan Chambers compensates for the lack of a conventional proscenium by erecting an immense onstage frame that, like the rest of the set, is white. That allows Caite Hevner’s precise projections to depict the setting as it evolves into a very familiar work of art that’s taken on new layers of meaning by the time its subjects emerge for their curtain call.
IF YOU GO:
Sunday in the Park with George
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through August 20