Sunday in the Park with George
Look who made a hat!
For those lucky enough to have seen the original production of "Sunday in the Park with George," it's tough to have the memory of that perfect evening erased from mind. But, as the title character says in the opening and closing lines of the show, in art there are "so many possibilities," most of which are beautifully realized on stage at the Hudson Theater in a daring revival of the Sondheim/Lapine ode to art and the artist.
Stepping into the roles created by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin are Tony Award-winner Annaleigh Ashford and Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal. And while Ashford is a natural choice to carry the Peters' flame, Gyllenhaal, who is not known for his work in musicals, is an unorthodox choice. But then again, as musicals go, "Sunday in the Park with George" is an unorthodox show.
It's a work of speculative fiction built around the life of 19th Century French pointillist painter Georges Seurat and the creation of his masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The first act follows the struggling Seurat as he endeavors to communicate himself through his art when he has trouble communicating directly person-to-person. The second act, which take place a century later, features Seurat's fictional grandson George (also an artist), experiencing his own set of challenges in an industry that requires him to repeat his success.
The musical plays on themes of longing, loneliness and passion (both requited and unrequited). It was a daring and complex work when it premiered in 1984 and remains one today.
In the roles of George, Gyllenhaal delivers a multi-layered performance as the misfit artist, charting new territory. His George is a man deeply in tune with physical beings yet oblivious to the needs of the people around him. "George, there is someone in this dress," his model says early in the play as he stare intently at her, seeing her and not seeing her at the same time. It is here that both George's passion and loneliness are perfectly on display. And although vocally, he lacks the brilliance of Patinkin's upper register, he, like his artist character, is able to blend some rich vocal color out of a limited palette.
Opposite Gyllenhaal in the dual roles of Seurat's model and lover Dot and her nonagenarian daughter Marie, Ashford once again proves herself to be one of Broadway's most skilled musical comediennes. Not missing a chance to get a laugh or jerk a tear, Ashford embodies a seemingly bottomless font of unconditional love from which George either refuses to or is unable to drink.
Her choice to infuse the aging Marie with a deep Southern accent makes Act Two's "Children and Art" take on a whole new musical meaning, as she places emphasis on the blue notes evident in Sondheim's song and literally sings the blues. As someone who has been intimately familiar with this score for over three decades, this was nothing short of revelatory.
The ensemble of Broadway veterans is also particularly wonderful. Most notably Erin Davie, Robert Sean Leonard, Ruthie Ann Miles and David Turner as a competing artist, his wife and their servants. Brooks Ashmankas and Liz McCartney are remarkably hilarious as a pair of 19th century ugly American tourists.
On hand to realize the musical's theme of art and progeny is director Sarna Lapine, niece to the book writer and director of the original Broadway production, James Lapine. Originally presented as a gala production for the City Center Encores series, Lapine has taken the Encores concert staging approach to focus on the show's key themes rather than get caught up in the physical trappings of a large musical. In doing so, the show's sometimes disparate acts, which are separated by a century, feel more like part of a single whole instead of an aggregate.
And while the physical design team of designer Beowulf Boritt with projections by Tal Yarden and lights by Ken Billington all appear to be on the same page in creating the sometime visually complex world of Georges Seurat, the same regrettably cannot be said of Clint Ramos' texture-free costume design. Fortunately, audiences don't walk out of a musical humming costumes. Sondheim's gloriously layered score is fully realized with an onstage orchestra under the skillful baton of Chris Fenwick.
I've often said that if forced to choose my favorite Sondheim musical, it would have to be "Sunday in the Park with George," but only in its original incarnation with its original cast. I can happily revise that statement now. With work this good, there are always "so many possibilities."
"Sunday in the Park with George" plays through April 23 at the Hudson Theater, 141 West 44th Street in New York City. For tickets and information, visit www.thehudsonbroadway.com