Sunday Best

If you've ever wondered why Stephen Sondheim, the brightest, most complicated kid in the American musical-theater classroom, never tapped into the populist appeal of such Broadway darlings as Kander N Ebb, Lerner N Loewe, and Rodgers N Hammerstein, consider his smartest and most challenging work, Sunday In the Park With George.

You can't get any farther from Oklahoma (or Oklahoma!)than this cerebral, darkly hued examination of painter Georges Seurat's emotionally taxing quest to create his scientifically precise masterpiece of pointillism, Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Artsy subject matter alone isn't why Sundayis a hard sell for the Wickedcrowd. The chief musical knock on Sondheim is his lack of hummable tunes; in Sunday, it's tempting to wonder if you're even hearing music. Melodies that constantly change within songs and lyrical phrasing that can sound like a rattling freight train one instant and a chorus of harmonizing angels the next does not make for the most audience-friendly, toe-tapping fare.

But just as Sondheim detractors find plenty to dislike in Sunday, his cadre of fevered acolytes see just as much to adore in his ravishingly clever lyrics and frenetically stimulating music.

And if director Oanh Nguyen's finely executed production at Anaheim's Chance Theater proves anything, it's that the Sondheim-as-genius camp has room to boast.

But is it entertaining? Guess that depends on whether Pink or John Coltrane is next on your iPod's shuffle.

Sondheim and librettist James Lapine's story is certainly deep and layered (it's one of just seven musicals to earn a Pulitzer Prize for drama). From detailing the obsessive nature of an artist's painstaking labor over every dot-stroke in his massive painting while increasingly isolating himself from the world around him, to a second act fast-forward of 100 years as a descendant of Seurat struggles to find purpose in his own artistic struggle, it's clear Sundayis concerned with lofty notions: the battle between art for art's sake and art as commerce; the danger of losing one's self through artistic immersion; the fascinating nexus between impersonal science and personal expression.

A script and score this arty and brainy need a lively cast to hold an audience's interest, and Nguyen's production is graced with a terrific ensemble and solid leads. Bob Simpson is a suitably self-consumed yet likeable Seurat, and Lowe Taylor's Dot, the painter's model, mistress and possible muse, lights up the stage with her sensual, comic and riveting performance.

Two other reasons this production works are a remarkably full-sounding three-person band (Bill Strongin on piano and Aimee Gomez and Kathleen Mangusing on violins) and John MacDonald's astonishing projection design, which keeps Seurat's painting evolving and devolving throughout the play.

It's solid, frequently amazing work. And while the Chance's production may not convince Sondheim detractors he's the best the American musical can aspire to, it's tangible evidence that anyone who thinks professional-caliber theater in OC only happens on its biggest stages isn't paying attention to what's happening in the lowlands of Anaheim Hills.

Sunday In the Park With George at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 16. $22-$25.

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