Sometimes, a painting strikes you as so glorious it seems to sing to you. On far rarer occasions, it actually does. The latter illusion is sustained breathtakingly in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” the 1984 musical being revived at Signature Theatre — in a production that itself stands as a profoundly moving work of art.
The story of impressionist Georges Seurat and his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the musical is as canny — and melodically enchanting — as any ever composed on the subjects of artists and their relationships to their work and to the world.
On this blissful occasion, the revival, directed with refinement and perspicacity by Matthew Gardiner, boasts an exemplary cast, led by Claybourne Elder as Seurat, imagined here as the standoffish “George,” a visionary who can empathize with others only by painting them. Even more captivatingly, it features the superb Brynn O’Malley as the aptly named Dot, a Parisian artist’s model frustrated by George’s finding her less satisfying as a flesh-and-blood woman than as a collection of specks on his canvas.
In point of fact, the story of George and Dot occupies only the first act of “Sunday in the Park,” which takes us into Seurat’s mind as he composes, step by step, dot by dot, “La Grande Jatte.” Sondheim finds corresponding rhythms and phrasings in music and lyrics for Seurat’s staccato brushstrokes, a virtuoso achievement capped by “Sunday,” one of musical theater’s most enthralling Act 1 finales. It’s during this scene — which like the rest of the show benefits greatly from Jennifer Schriever’s splendid lighting — that George finishes “La Grande Jatte” before our eyes, shifting the scenery and more than a dozen actors into position until all of them conform to images in the famous 1884 painting.
Don’t be surprised if, in spite of yourself, you choke up at this extraordinary gesture. Because when you finally see what George sees, these actors transformed into figures in a harmonious tableau, you feel an inexplicable joy. The actors may be moving their mouths, but you’d swear it’s the picture that is singing.
From this perfect musical moment, where can a show go? The completion of “La Grande Jatte” feels like a satisfying ending. But as they would do in their next show, “Into the Woods,” the composer and book writer use the second act to spin the plot in a new direction, one that ultimately reveals itself to be in crucial dialogue with the first. And though in some past productions Act 2 has felt as if it’s little more than a glib lament about the commercial burdens placed on artists, in Gardiner’s treatment another, more inspirational thread takes firmer hold, and a keener sense of a culminating harmony sweeps over the entire proceedings.
This can be traced in significant measure to O’Malley’s terrific transformation in Act 2 into Dot’s daughter, the 98-year-old, wheelchair-bound Marie. The year is 1983, and she is attending the museum unveiling of the latest video installation by her grandson, a digital sculptor also named George and played by Elder, who’s hit a creative dead end. (“Putting It Together,” deftly presided over by Elder, is this George’s complaint about all the nonartistic duties he’s required to perform in what he dismisses as “the art of making art.”)
While Dot sought to draw the George of 1884 out of his solitary studio life and into the world, Marie wants the George of 1983 to forget about the pressures of the world and get back to the passion that he found in a devotion to work. It’s the vivaciousness and warmth suffusing both characters that make O’Malley such an entertaining touchstone. (And she’s equally convincing as a codger singing “Children and Art,” and coquette delivering a sublime rendition of the title song.) These qualities conspire to imbue “Move On,” Marie’s final plea to George to pick up where his great-grandfather, the pointillist, left off, with an affirmative sense of a picture that’s taken all evening to complete.
Elder has the good looks and steely bearing required for Act 1’s George, although playing a character of limited emotional range is no walk in a Parisian park. He acquits himself well and, like O’Malley, sings with a clarion confidence. Gardiner casts with exceptional skill the various working and bourgeois types who catch the painter’s eye. Donna Migliaccio is especially strong as Seurat’s mother, and Maria Egler makes inspired use of every precious second the script allots to the mother’s vinegary nurse.
The wryness of Lapine’s book, in fact, has rarely received such adroit treatment. Among the actors comically pitched just right are Susan Derry and Erin Driscoll, as the competitive and flirtatious Celestes; Mitchell Hébert and Valerie Leonard, playing the members of the artistic elite who look down on Seurat; and Evan Casey and Angela Miller, as supercilious German servants with sex on the brain. Paul Scanlan, meanwhile, makes a vivid impression as the sneering, proletarian boatman. (And double honors go to Leonard and Migliaccio as, respectively, a self-dramatizing artiste and a jaded art critic in the second act.)
The show sounds great, too, courtesy of sound designer Lane Elms and an 11-piece orchestra conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. Daniel Conway’s economical set provides an intimate frame in the 275-seat Signature space, and Frank Labovitz finds stylish and witty ways to make the costumes extensions of character. Song by song, stitch by stitch, Gardiner and company put it all together, impeccably.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, Daniel Conway; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Jennifer Schriever; sound, Lane Elms; wigs, Samantha Hunter; projections, Robbie Hayes. With Dan Manning, Sadie Rose Herman, Lucy Alexa Herman and Joseph Mace. Through Sept. 21 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$100. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-SEAT. About 2 hours, 45 minutes.