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Savant Short Review:

Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George
Image Entertainment
1986 / Color / 1:37 / 146 min.
Starring Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Charles Kimbrough, Barbara Bryne, Dana Ivey, Mary D'Arcy
Costume Designers Ann Hould-Ward, Patricia Zipprodt
Art Direction
Film Editor Jimmy B. Frazier
Original Music Stephen Sondheim
Written by James Lapine and
Produced by Michael Brandman
Directed by Terry Hughes

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Described as the most challenging of the Sondheim/Lapine collaborations, Sunday in the Park with George is a unique Broadway show, here recorded, as opposed to being reworked, for television. Starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, it's a thoughtful and sensitive rumination on Art and its relationship to everyday life. Less melodic or conventional than either Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods, it weaves a spell of its own. Image's DVD is an excellent way to experience it.


In the 19th century, George (Mandy Pantinkin) works on studies for his large pointillist masterpiece, 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.' The characters he meets there and his long-suffering mistress-model Dot (Bernadette Peters) neither understand what he's doing nor sympathize with his total immersion in his unheard-of experimental style. A successful artist friend does sympathize, but offers little encouragement. Carrying George's child, Dot eventually leaves him to go to America with another man - a baker whose 'Art' both tastes good and endears him to all. George carries on making his 'connections' with the people on the grass, just as his dots of color connect in the mind to make his canvasses so brilliant. PART TWO: In 1986 Chicago, George's great grandson has also become an artist, making flashy multimedia installations called Chromolumes. They are so expensive, that he must spend all his time connecting with patrons and benefactors. His grandmother Marie is the daughter of Dot and the original George, and when she dies, direct connection with the painter of long ago will be lost forever - Marie has kept Dot's grammar book, annotated with personal observations about the great artist, but nobody knows its significance.

Sunday in the Park with George takes on the difficult and un-Broadwayish task of illuminating the nature of Art and artists, through the magic of a real painting by Frenchman George Seurat. Little is known of him, as he never had success while alive, but his pointillist experiments are considered basic material for any Art class.

Once again, Lapine and Sondheim take the framework of a 'show' in a totally unexpected direction. Their novel staging employs flats and scrims of the painting in progress, and uses perspective tricks to place the Sunday strollers into proto-versions of Seurat's work. We have to live with the project much the way George does, and suffer with him while he turns his back on the conventional, yet adoring Dot. Eventually, he drives her away. Patinkin's George tries hard to communicate his dream to his artist friend, to try to get a peer to appreciate the magnitude of his ideas, but his style is a tough sell. The various Sunday people by turns admire or deride George's efforts, or suspect him of ulterior motives, but the point is that they're moving through a real existence, living real lives, while George is denying his own to favor his Art. In one heartbreaking song, Dot puts on her makeup while George paints (forever paints) and the gap grows wider.

As with Into the Woods, the second half of Sunday in the Park with George is a stylistic surprise, landing us in modern times with a more conventional, neurotic artist descendant whose concerns and problems are made ironic without seeming like a schematic convenience. The Chromolumes he's creating are meaningless shapes decorated with projected images and a laser show to appear even more devoid of integrity. But this new George still cares, and still tries. He's just in a world where his great grandfather's simple kind of obsession isn't sensational enough. People still marvel at the original hanging in a Chicago museum. The final irony are the singing numbers done by the 'immortalized' strollers, who are now ghostlike fixtures in the painting, complaining about their poses and being jealous of one another. "You can't even see my face!", complains one figure, whose back is turned to us.

The result can be best described as a sublime meditation. It's not the kind of show one exits dancing or singing, so the hushed respect it elicits will have to do - you won't see High School productions of this one. The painful feeling of the passing of time between eras is well-communicated. With just three generations passed, George's whole life is already lost to antiquity, except for his masterpiece.

For an undereducated person like myself, Sunday in the Park with George provided a nice break from gaudy cinematic efforts to 'explain' Artists, such as Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas' impassioned impersonation and a bombastic stereophonic score. The result is that when I see Van Gogh, I think of Miklos Rosza, not schizophrenic sunflowers. Watching Mandy Patinkin's restrained passion, and realizing that his life may well have been a quiet, interior merging with an artistic concept, helped me relate to the idea that an artist can be something pure.

Image's DVD of Sunday in the Park with George is a no-nonsense version of the original televsion video, rendered much more delicately in the improved resolution of DVD. Theater fans will treasure the commentary track, in which Sondheim, Lapine, Patinkin and Peters talk fondly of the play, in great detail and with a critical slant. It's invaluable. They discuss what is described as a very rough preview process where the show underwent many changes, and listening them try to restate their aims and their discoveries is particularly interesting. A nice essay on the packaging is provided by Image producer Garrett M. Lee.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sunday in the Park with George rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 28, 2002

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