The best television musical in years. Sondheim's `Sunday in the Park' features stars from Broadway version

A brilliantly dramatized and musicalized treatise on creativity has been converted from a delicate Broadway triumph into an exquisite television entertainment. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (PBS, Monday, June 16, 9-11:30 p.m.), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, makes its electronic debut with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin re-creating their starring roles. The show is the season's final ``American Playhouse'' production.

``Sunday in the Park'' is television's most fascinating musical production since ``Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,'' another Sondheim stage hit that was transposed to television screens three years ago.

Sondheim, however, is something of an acquired taste, and his complex, nonmelodic scores sometimes frighten off playgoers who would prefer an easy hum. ``Sunday in the Park'' is not your typical expense-account-oriented brassy Broadway musical.

Inspired by the life and paintings of French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat, the sets and costumes and many of the characters were lifted right out of the artist's most famous painting, ``Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,'' which currently hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The TV production, directed by Terry Hughes, is based on the original Broadway production, staged by James Lapine.

Television proves to be the ideal medium for this play, since its series of glorious tableaux can be pinpointed for small-screen viewers without the distraction of the whole stage.

``Sunday in the Park'' is filled with gentle whimsy masquerading as satire, as it paints its own picture of single-minded creative genius in two generations. Virtually every scene is charmingly insistent in its determination to sanctify the kind of creativity that ultimately triumphs over petty contemporary criticism.

In a way, isn't Sondheim writing about the nature of artistry, including his own?

At the end, after Seurat's great-grandson agonizes over his sometimes denigrated laser-beam interpretations of the painter's themes, there is a sublime moment of anticipated creativity -- a blank page! A white canvas can mean only one thing to a true artist, says Sondheim: ``So many possibilities.'' Perhaps there are moments when ``Sunday in the Park with George'' seems a bit too precious, a mite too self-conscious, even excruciatingly self-indulgent.

But in the long run, it emerges as still another Sondheim triumph, this one even better on television than it was in the theater.

Be forewarned: Sondheim's talent is subtly persistent. It tends to sneak up on the unsuspecting, who may have resisted Sondheim musicals like ``Follies,'' ``Company,'' or ``Sweeney Todd.''

So, even if you don't like ``Sunday in the Park'' at first view, the chances are that at some time in the future you may find yourself adoring it.

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