Being an artist has never been easy. Consider Georges Seurat, the 19th-century Frenchman who painted the masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Scorned during his lifetime, he died at age 31 without ever having sold a painting.
Still, watching the San Francisco Playhouse production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” it’s easy to admire — even envy — Seurat. He sees what no one else sees, enabling him to capture color and light and image with tiny flecks of paint in the groundbreaking style that came to be known as pointillism.
Seurat is the central figure of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), and the new production, smartly directed by S.F. Playhouse artistic director Bill English, makes him an indelible character.
Obsessed with finishing the painting that will establish him as a major artist, George (a dreamily intense John Bambery), works with singular focus, neglecting his lover, Dot (the beguiling Nanci Zoppi), ignoring the sage advice of his mother (a touching Maureen McVerry) and angrily defying detractors such as the well-established artist, Jules (a condescending Ryan Drummond.)
Like the Parisians enjoying a leisurely Sunday in Seurat’s iconic painting, which is projected at intervals throughout the show, the Act 1 scenes are peopled with colorful characters — lovers and soldiers, mothers and daughters, ingénues, cheating spouses, a rustic boatman and a crass American couple.
The action moves between bucolic riverside episodes to George’s high-windowed studio and back again (English designed the sets, Michael Oesch the atmospheric lighting; sound and projections are by Theodore J. H. Hulsker and Abra Berman designed the excellent period costumes.)
Act 2 jumps forward a hundred years to a contemporary art gallery, where another artist named George — Seurat’s grandson, also played by Bambery — is being celebrated for his latest multimedia installation. If the action slows a bit here, the message is clear. For George, surrounded by sycophants, critics and anxious promoters, the triumph feels thin; despite the kudos, he’s beset by doubts about his ability to stay inspired.
That question, finally, is what “Sunday in the Park with George” is all about: what it takes to create and sustain a life in art.
Sondheim illuminates his themes and emotions in brilliantly intricate songs, and the cast makes the big ensemble numbers resonate with vitality (Dave Dobrusky conducts the score.)
But the composer also makes his points in songs such as Act 1’s “Finishing the Hat,” which Bambery, with his warm, focused tenor, delivers handsomely. Act 2’s “Move On,” urgently sung by Bambery and Zoppi, is another highlight.
It’s those moments that lend the production its greatest impact. Hearing Seurat articulate his struggles, “Sunday in the Park with George” offers a bracing reminder of art’s transcendent power.
Sunday in the Park with George
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 8
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org