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Sunday in the Park with George

Image Entertainment

Starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Written and Directed by James Lapine

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Little is known about the life of painter George Seraut. Barely a cipher in the impressionist movement, Seraut experimented in obscurity and died at 31, never having sold one of his works. It wasn't until much later that Seraut's dynamic pointillist (or "chromo-luminist") representations of color and light were regarded as masterpieces.

The Pulitzer-prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George — a live performance of which this disc is a television recording — is not as much an attempt to interpret Seraut's life through what he clues he may have left in his art, but instead uses this imagined life to comment on the nature of artists and art, and the uneasy yet emotionally vital relationship between art and life.

The first act of Sunday is concerned with Seraut's creation of his greatest work, the gigantic "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." While George (Mandy Patinkin) sketches (and enacts) the goings-on of this Parisian island, his curious presence is met with amusement and scorn by the working- and upper-class Sunday strollers. There is also tension between George and his model/lover Dot (Bernadette Peters). His attention toward her is spent obsessively recreating her on sketchpad and canvas — hardly the emotional contact she craves. Eventually she leaves him, for a more attentive baker, and moves to America with George's newborn child. George delves further into his misunderstood, maverick style.

The second act flashes forward to the 1980s, where George's great grandson (also Patinkin, and also named George) is also an artist, struggling to balance his technology-heavy, stagnant art with the commercial and social demands of a booming capitalist art market. With the help of his ailing grandmother Marie (also Peters) — Dot's daughter — George is able to reconnect with his past and focus on creating something new.

Sunday flourishes in Sondheim's rich lyrics and compositions. Single-handedly responsible for maturing American musical theater since the early 1970s, Sondheim turns in here one of his most courageous and introspective works. His music mimics Seraut's style, percussive and punctuating, a smattering of notes evolving into soaring melodies.

Lyrically, Sondheim portrays George as an obsessive genius incapable of sharing the emotion of his work with the people closest to him — not very different from how Sondheim himself is often portrayed. The result is brilliant, and often heartbreaking. George's obsession with the technique of his art is vividly portrayed in the song "Color and Light," and the chasm of understanding between George and Dot is heart-wrenching in "We Do Not Belong Together." The show's most moving numbers, "Finishing the Hat" and "Beautiful," lovingly examine the joy, meaning, and desperation of art; from its ability to capture the rarest of moments, to the wonder of creating something as simple and mundane as a hat.

As for Patinkin and Peters, they have the best voices in the business, and this 1984 recording captures them in their prime. Patinkin gamely commits to all of George's eccentricities, feverishly dabbing at his canvas in one scene, and in the next imagining a duet between dogs in the park. His presence is solid, his voice is rich, and the complexity of his performance proves him the master performer he is.

Where most Sondheim shows suffer, however, are in the spoken dialog, written here by Sunday's director and frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. Though obviously intelligent, Lapine too often stoops for easy, gimmicky laughs, forsaking the material's subtlety and pacing. While Lapine must be credited with the marvelous way he gradually assembles a stage tableau of Seraut's "La Grande Jatte" out of the set and characters, much of the non-musical build up to this magical Act One finale is a tad grating. Sadly, as great as it is to see this historic production, Lapine's shortcomings as a self-editor make the Original Cast Recording CD the best way to enjoy this incredible combination of Sondheim's, Patinkin's, and Peters' talents.

The image on this disc is adequate (it was originally shot on broadcast video) and is presented in standard 1.33:1. The first act suffers from a few too many shimmers, artifacts, and image freezes (even dropping a line of dialog in one scene). The 2.0 Dolby sound on the disc is a great improvement over its VHS counterpart, and makes this live recording sound as crisp and clear as possible. Also included are production notes and an indispensable commentary track with Sondheim, Patinkin, Peters, and Lapine. Overall, this disc is great for Sondheim fans, but it doesn't touch the pristine experience of the sublime Cast Recording.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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