Sunday in the Park With George
Jake Gyllenhaal leads a revival of Stephen Sondheim's beloved musical.
White, a blank stage or theater. So many possibilities. We don't yet know what theatrical magic will take place in the newly reopened Hudson Theatre, but Ambassador Theatre Group (the landlord and lead producer on this show) is leaving no room for an inauspicious first production. Leading the Hudson out of 50 years of darkness is Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's joyous celebration of color and light, Sunday in the Park With George. It has been slightly modified from last fall's New York City Center gala concert featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford (both of whom appear at the Hudson). Gyllenhaal leads, but the music is the real star in this solid revival of a modern classic.
Strange for a musical, the show (which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1983) isn't inspired by a novel or movie, but a painting: Georges Seurat's pointillistic masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Sondheim and Lapine based their characters directly on figures in the painting. Some of them are given personal relationships to the artist, like his mother (the sweet-voiced Penny Fuller) and his artistic rival, Jules (a menacingly vacant Robert Sean Leonard). The woman in the foreground with the parasol and monkey is Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), the artist's lover. Not appearing in the painting, but dutifully putting it together is Georges (Jake Gyllenhaal).
We leap forward a century for the second act: Seurat's illegitimate great-grandson, named George (and also played by Gyllenhaal), is an experimental sculptor presenting his seventh "chromolume," which is essentially a big, expensive electric light show, the kind one might see at EPCOT (this most extravagant of design elements is a legitimately impressive collaboration of set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Ken Billington, and sound designer Kai Harada). While his grandmother, Marie (Ashford), proudly boasts of the family legacy, George tries to balance commercial pressures with his need to create.
Sondheim's music for Sunday is undeniably sophisticated, full of challenging harmonies and rhythms that one would expect to encounter in the realm of contemporary classical music rather than the Broadway stage. Some of the songs in this show are the musical-theater equivalent of an Olympic gymnastics routine. We hold our breaths during "Putting it Together," realizing how little room for error there is in the multilayered entrances and exits of this group number. Thrillingly, the chorus has improved tenfold since the concert reading at City Center, not only performing the music but doing so with dynamic flair. The first act finale, "Sunday," is the closest any of us will get to a religious experience in a Broadway theater.
Unfortunately, the technical mastery of the music has come with the side effect of performances that feel stiff and two-dimensional, even for figures in a painting. Some of this is inherent in Lapine's formal language. In his book, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim claims this formality, "Lend[s] the show both a nineteenth-century aura and the sense that it was a translation from the French." While this seems like an ex post facto justification for wooden dialogue, there are undoubtedly actors who can make those words come alive, but they are not cast in this production.
While the formality of Lapine's script gave the City Center reading a sense of excitement akin to discovering an old diary buried in the attic, it feels stilted in this more polished production. Director Sarna Lapine (niece of James), who also helmed the gala production, has rehearsed the life out of a staging that previously felt fresh and new.
Luckily, the two leads are a major exception: Gyllenhaal eschews the manic portrayal of George favored by role originator Mandy Patinkin, opting for an artist that is more sedate, aloof, and even melancholy. It feels authentic and helps to explain his allure: His selfishness is not malicious, but a symptom of his unflinching dedication to his work. Gyllenhaal also has some of the most difficult music in the show, and he nails it with tonal and lyrical precision.
Ashford plays Dot with her typical humor and warmth, giving us a character to root for in this occasionally alienating story about an artist and his craft. Her haunting rendition of "Children and Art" is one for the ages, with vocals that float on the wind, delicate yet completely confident.
Much credit goes to music director Chris Fenwick, who makes his 13-piece orchestra sound positively symphonic. The warmth of the woodwinds and the majesty of the French horn come through in perfect balance with the vocalists.
As at City center, the orchestra occupies upstage: Boritt separates them from the stage action with a sagging scrim, allowing Tal Yarden's projections to create George's park. Although anachronistic in 19th-century France, the shiny synthetic fabrics in Clint Ramos' costumes capture the vibrancy in Seurat's painting. The aim of the show never was historical accuracy anyway, but a stunning and unforgettable variation on a well-known work of art.
Musically, this revival of Sunday in the Park with George delivers on that promise: When you leave the Hudson Theatre, you will almost certainly be humming Sondheim's triumphant score, which marries artistic risk with sheer beauty.