Sunday in the Park with George @ Ravinia

White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities...

—Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Ah, details, details....

The pre-show interview: Stephen Sondheim on stage. Reason enough to live in Chicago, to love the audience that attends and listens. Posterity, he says, does not interest him. But who will be here in twenty years? Nobody. There is nobody to take his place. What he has given, what he stands for, the intelligence, the care, the craft, the light and the weight of it, it's all dying. Pay attention. Be present. Be grateful.

What we learn: they chose Seurat because his life history is a blank ("with Van Gogh, you would have to do the ear"); they could fashion any fiction they liked from the painting. Forty-eight people and not one of them is looking at anybody else. The only figure missing is the artist.

Act I: 1884. Costumes in coffees and creams, a neutral palette; you cannot compete with the colors in the painting, so why try? The effect is the same.

Audra McDonald is gorgeous but somehow too strong—too confident from the start, which hampers the evolution of her character: she is what she is the whole way through. Her voice is strong, glorious, but she frequently drowns out Michael Cerveris in their duets. He is better on his own, and freer, especially with “The Day Off,” a number I’ve always skipped on the CD. (He barks like a dog? He barks like a dog!) Some 14 years after I first heard this music, it is new for me again. A small treasure I’ve been overlooking all along. Shame on me. And as for my dear Patti: she is magic. One brief song, one brief scene, when Yvonne confesses to Dot that her husband will not paint her—“Too flat. Too...angular.”—you glimpse the inside of something.

And throughout: Seurat’s sketches projected against a blank white screen, as we see what he sees in his pad. The making of art. Staccato beats, refrains and echoes, the color, the light, the hat. The extraordinary cost of it all.

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.
Mapping out a sky,
What you feel like, planning a sky,
What you feel when voices that come
through the window
until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.

The end of the act is thrilling as always, the characters align and shift, pause and shift again, reach their final positions and freeze—a breath, a heartbeat, a shiver—as “the Seurats” sweep the white canvas away and you see it in full for the first time. A masterpiece. Here the presence of the orchestra onstage is obtrusive; it effectively cuts the painting in half. But that moment is enough. It is what lasts.

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday...

Act II: The characters resume their places in the painting. A long pause as the orchestra waits, as the audience waits—time suspended—for the spell to be broken. Immortality stifles. It's hot up there, and dull. They did not ask for this. The figures unfreeze, bicker and fidget and begin to break apart. The ladies lower their parasols. Seurat is "no longer," they tell us. One by one they leave the stage. Everything changes.

1984. Michael Cerveris: I can’t be the first person who sees Mike Myers doing Dr. Evil? A minor distraction, but all those poor Seurats, forced to shave their heads; goodness, that is dedication for a three-performance concert. (Note that Patti’s son was spared.) “Putting It Together”: the lyrics are a bit muddied, but it is a difficult scene, navigating levels, fixing his doubles in their places, pulling them back as they threaten to drift away. Audra as Marie is magnificent—warm, funny, calming. Here is the character, not the actress. “Children and Art” is by far her best number. In “Move On,” we revert somewhat, but her confidence fits. Dot has become the teacher.

And the finale: The characters, ghosts now, return once more to take up their poses (and again, it is thrilling), but the background rehearsal film playing over the final chords diminishes the whole. The intent is clear (and powerful: there is one shot of the actors standing in their characters’ places on the grounds of the Ravinia park, trees towering behind them; it fades to white as an image of Sondheim and James Lapine fades in), but where should my attention be? Here or there? An odd staging choice that makes what should be resonant feel rushed.

But complaints are trivial. The summer ends as all summers should, and I am reminded.

Lesson: Ask yourself every day, again and again and again, in the midst of all this deep, unknowing darkness: what is your greatest joy in life? And then find an answer.

This is mine.