|SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE|
One of the most profound musicals ever written, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park With George,” now the initial Broadway presentation of the beautifully refurbished Hudson Theatre, tells us more in 2 /12 hours about the nature of creativity, the business of art, and the difficulty of connecting with another person than hundreds of other shows put together.
Its latest incarnation, born from last year’s three-day production at City Center and sensitively yet simply directed by Sarna Lapine, is rightfully among the hottest tickets in town, due primarily to the star power of Jake Gyllenhaal, making his official Broadway musical debut. So, to get that question out of the way first, he may not rival original “Sunday” star Mandy Patinkin in the vocal department, but he has a truly lovely tenor voice and a great actor’s deep understanding of the lyrics.
Like the entire cast, Gyllenhaal is tasked with playing two characters. In the first act, he’s the famed pointillist painter Georges Seurat, whom we watch as he puts together his masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte;” in the second he’s Seurat’s great grandson, George, a contemporary artist struggling with some of the same issues as his ancestor.
Gyllenhaal makes these iconic roles his own; in Act I, he’s less the tortured, romantic artist than a cold, obsessive man whose work is his sole purpose and care in life – so much so, that he essentially abandons his girlfriend Dot (the sublime Annaleigh Ashford, bringing humor, poignancy and anger in equal measure to the role) and their infant daughter; while the more modern-day George (the show’s second act is set in Chicago in 1984) is slightly neurotic, painfully shy, and basically unable to meaningfully interact with other people, even his 98-year-old grandmother Marie (an irresistible Ashford).
And yet, he’s extraordinarily sympathetic: in the show’s penultimate musical number, the extraordinary “Move On” (in which George has an imagined conversation with the long-dead Dot while finally visiting France), George expresses so much of what we all feel; how to do we create “something new” for the world and what do we do in the face of outer and inward criticism. If you’re not crying by the end of the song (in large part due to Ashford’s gorgeously nuanced performance) –well, you should be.
“Sunday” was originally derided by some for not having a “hummable score,” but many of Sondheim’s songs here, while not altogether conventional, are among the finest ever penned for theater: “Children and Art,” Everybody Loves Louie,” “Putting It Together,” and especially the remarkable title song, which closes both acts.
It’s true that Gyllenhaal and Ashford basically do all the metaphorical heavy lifting here, but one must be grateful for the star-studded supporting cast, which includes Robert Sean Leonard, Ruthie Ann Miles, Erin Davie, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Liz McCartney in roles that are little more than cameos. Even better are the performances of the basso-voiced Philip Boykin as the ornery but honest Boatman, and the glorious Penny Fuller as both Seurat’s eccentric mother and an outspoken art critic. All are supported by a beautiful orchestra led by music director Chris Fenwick.
Admittedly, there’s minimal spectacle to this production, with Clint Ramos’ colorful costumes and the lighting effects of Ken Billington (especially during the dazzling “Chromolume #7”) being the most notable elements. I realize that may lead you to think twice about the high cost of purchasing a prime seat (if one is available). But to quote Sondheim: “a little less thinking, a little more feeling.” Go with your gut and don’t miss this rare opportunity to see this very special production of a very special show.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Mattea Marie Conforti, Erin Davie, Claybourne Elder, Penny Fuller, Jordan Gelber, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Jennifer Sanchez, David Turner, Max Chernin, MaryAnn Hu, Michael McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein, Julie Foldesi, Andrew Kober
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