Poor Dot. Vivacious but illiterate, this 19th-century woman wants to go out and have some fun. But she’s hanging around a cold, self-involved man who is not attuned to her needs. Her lover, George (Randy Harrison), is an artist who would rather talk to his canvas than to his muse. The painting of her that he is doing is a form of flattery that holds a promise of immortality, but is it enough for her to stay with him?
These two oil-and-water people (Erin Mackey plays Dot) are the central characters in “Sunday in the Park With George,” the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that opened in Joe Haj’s elegant production Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
While there are plenty of stage shows that have arisen from films, the number inspired by visual art is much smaller. Two pieces of August Wilson’s 20th-century cycle — “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson” — were sparked by collages by Romare Bearden. And Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” takes its lead character, Dull Gret, from Bruegel’s painting of a peasant warrior.
“Sunday in the Park” is based on Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the pointillist masterwork about relaxation and leisure that is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sondheim and Lapine have set the first act of their show in 1885, imagining the back stories of the people in the painting while also making statements about artistic creation and legacy.
The musical then jumps a century later as descendants of Dot and George try to interpret their legacy: one is an artist also named George (Harrison), the other his grandmother, Marie (Mackey).
Haj’s production boasts eye-catching, inspired design (Jan Chambers did the scenery so brilliantly lit by lighting designer Jane Cox). While “Sunday in the Park” takes place on the Guthrie’s thrust stage, it’s really a proscenium show that flows out of a picture frame.
Bookwriter Lapine seems to run out of ideas in the second act. The action stalls a bit. But Sondheim’s compositions are engaging throughout. Music director Mark Hartman conducts with precision, color and subtlety while the singing actors deliver with beauty.
Mackey was a smashing showstopper on opening night. She set the tone early in her effortless performance of the difficult title song that opens the show, holding her notes while moving through Christopher Windom’s subtle choreography.
Mackey also handled her dialogue with aplomb, even as she helped highlight Toni-Leslie James’ eye-popping costumes, which are characters themselves.
Harrison mastered his dialogue and his singing was laden with emotion. If his star does not seem to shine as bright, it’s partly because he plays a less sympathetic character. There’s also the matter of juxtaposition with Mackey.
The production, which has a huge, handsome cast, has a showstopping turn by T. Mychael Rambo and Emily Gunyou Halaas, who play two coarse, impatient Americans in Paris. The pair walk through the masterwork with confidence. Their quick turn is clean and crisp, a tribute to form, composition and meaning in a work about the tension between art and heart.