Sondheim musical explores an artist's life and work

Sunday in the Park With George. Musical starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Lapine.

Georges Seurat completed only a handful of paintings during his brief life, and he failed to sell a single one. Yet his fame and influence have been enormous. Even casual art-watchers know ''A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,'' an 1886 pointillist masterpiece shaped not from traditional brushstrokes but from multitudinous specks of color.

The contrast between Seurat's quiet, hardworking life and his largely posthumous celebrity is the kind of irony Broadway and Hollywood love to explore , and it's one theme of ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' which opened last night at the Booth Theatre. The plot is loosely based on Seurat's biography, while the main visual cues are taken from ''La Grande Jatte'' itself.

The first act swings between the artist's studio and the island where he sketches his ideas, showing him as a visionary whose work crowds out everything else, including the love of a good woman named (what else?) Dot. In a twist, the second act whisks us to the present, where his descendant - a trendy ''multimedia'' artist - faces a different set of questions about the balance between private and professional fulfillment and creates a wacky artwork that provides some lively moments.

In concocting this entertainment, writer-director James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim have in effect opened up Seurat's greatest painting, inviting us inside for a rather meditative tour. During the first half of the evening, the stage mimics ''La Grande Jatte,'' complete with pointillist trees and dogs. Many of the figures come to life, chatting or arguing with the painter. While the second act takes place a century later, it explores similar themes, just as much contemporary art is an echo of past explorations.

The trouble with the show is not a lack of imagination but rather a basic conflict between its style and substance. The character Seurat, superbly played by Mandy Patinkin, keeps repeating his artistic watchwords: order, design, harmony, and so forth. They perfectly suit the stately, orderly, supremely composed world of ''La Grande Jatte.''

By themselves, however, they don't particularly suit (and aren't successfully made to suit) the needs of a stage musical. The eternal calm of Seurat's painting is one thing; the static compositions and sticky pacing of Lapine's production are quite another. ''Sunday'' hovers between the formal elegance of ''La Grande Jatte'' and the living, breathing, potentially fascinating life of Seurat himself - but partakes fully of neither, despite the energetic work of Patinkin and Bernadette Peters at the head of an uneven cast.

Still, the Sondheim score is vibrant. Much as Seurat created flowing figures from tiny points of color, Sondheim has long enjoyed playing with small musical units, including repetitive ''vamps'' over which melodies soar. His music here often revels in a kind of sonic pointillism, singers and instruments rattling out staccato bits of tune that merge into sprightly (if not exactly hummable) order almost despite themselves.

At other moments, too, Sondheim and Lapine find strong links between their subject and their stagecraft. But too often the characters are stereotypes in trite situations, and Lapine's visual strategies are too studied to bring them fully to life.

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