Gwen Herndon deserves extra credit for thinking on her feet during a recent performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George (at SF Playhouse through Sept. 8). In this fictional biography of Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Sondheim investigates the creative process behind the 19th-century French painter’s pointillistic masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886). Herndon is in costume as Louise, the girl in a white dress who Seurat placed at the center of his painting.
As the second act begins, Louise, along with the other characters in a life-size recreation of La Grande Jatte, start to sing. George (John Bambery) has posed each one of them in place, adjusting an elbow here, raising a chin over there. He removed Louise’s glasses at the end of Act I, but Herndon was wearing them again when the curtain went up after the intermission. She immediately caught onto the mistake when she sang her first line, “I want my glasses.”
Herndon surreptitiously removed them after that and tucked them into the back of her pink sash before resuming her next line with more conviction, “I can’t see anything.” It was a sweet moment in “It’s Hot Up Here,” a song that’s filled with a chorus of complaints. While at work, sketching and arranging everyone in their proper place, George has been singing about order, design, composition, balance, light, and harmony. Sondheim ends the first act with the artist having accomplished his vision — but it’s come at a cost.
The musical opens with George’s mistress Dot (Nanci Zoppi) singing “Sunday in the Park with George.” Dot is bored posing for him and drifts into an impassioned reverie, “I love your eyes, George. / I love your beard, George. / I love your size, George. / But most of all, I love your painting.” When Zoppi sings this billet-doux, she elongates every syllable with affection. She’s an expert comedienne who’s unafraid to use her curves to get a laugh while at the same time being able to convey an exquisite tenderness toward the man she loves. In this role, she reminds one of Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950). Her Dot may not be book-smart, but she knows what the score is when it comes to men.
This opening number sets up the emotional dynamic between her and George. Dot, an unmarried woman without an income to speak of, wants his undivided attention. And, by extension, she’d like an unequivocal commitment from him. While George is obsessively at work on his painting, he’s temperamental and inexpressive with her. Sondheim composed “Color and Light” for them, a duet in which they sing their most intimate thoughts to each other. This is how we know that, despite his churlishness, George loves Dot as much as she loves him.
But when he sings to her admiringly, “The pink lips, the red cheeks. … But the way she catches light. …” she can’t hear him. They’re his unspoken thoughts as he paints her from afar. At first, the scene is staged as a set piece of misunderstanding and comic opposition. George is furiously painting while Dot is painting her face in anticipation of an evening out. When George cancels their date night so he can continue his work, her frustration and impatience turns to fury. She decides to leave him. Sondheim here fuses light and dark tones together. He captures their intimacy as it moodily shifts from comedy to drama.
The original Off-Broadway production of Sunday in the Park only included the first act for the first several performances. It still can stand on its own as a fully developed musical. George completes his painting as Dot tries to cut herself off from him. Their relationship provides the energy and motion that keeps the drama alive. When the second act voices the irritations of the figures in the paintings, Sondheim embarks on an act of deconstruction. He leaves behind the central love story for a meditation on the role of the artist in the pitiably shallow yet glamorous New York art world.
It’s a curious detour that, in retrospect, feels like a concession to the big-haired zeitgeist of the 1980s when the musical was first produced. “Putting It Together” might have easily fulfilled some producer’s request for a show-stopper. While the song delivers plenty of razzmatazz, it also feels like a concession to the era, and a redundant, glitzier version of “Color and Light” but without the romance. In this revival Bambery and Zoppi are so good, both individually and as a harmonizing couple, you don’t begrudge them even more time on stage singing their hearts out to the audience and to each other.
Sunday in the Park with George, through Sept. 8, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $20-$125; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph