Sunday in the Park With George continues at the Hudson Theatre, New York until 23 April.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Has any work of art ever been more imaginatively celebrated by another work of art than in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George?
In Act I, the musical rejoices in the creation of and virtually inhabits French painter Georges Seurat’s late 19th Century masterwork ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’.
In the Act II, the show adds layers of meaning and emotion as it explores the immortality of the painting and the people portrayed within it and makes a grand attempt to define the ineffable – the intertwining of art with the continuity of humanity.
Most of this comes through in breathtaking fashion in the new revival of this Pulitzer Prize-winning opus, which is marking the reopening of the stately and venerable Hudson Theatre as a Broadway venue under the auspices of UK’s Ambassador Theatre Group.
The production dazzles with a superb performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, a movie star who until now has pretty much kept his musical theatre talents under wraps.
Sharing star billing with Gyllenhaal in formidable fashion is Annaleigh Ashford, who has recently emerged as a Broadway fan favourite with turns in Kinky Boots and her Tony Award-winning caper in the non-musical You Can’t Take It with You.
It all makes for a special occasion, heightened by the fact that it’s playing for only an unusually limited Broadway engagement of little more than two months.
The production was put together earlier for a handful of benefit performances last fall for the New York City Center Encores! series.
Ecstatic reviews prompted this commercial mounting. The staging still exhibits its origins as a staged concert, particularly in the rather irksomely barren set design in Act I.
Hanging midway across the stage is a scrim pretty well obscuring the orchestra placed behind it; it resembles a giant dishrag hung up to dry. Landscapes suggesting the painting Seurat is creating are dimly projected onto it, but the overall look, despite the serviceable period costumes by Clint Ramos, is bleak, losing the magical, colour-infused ambiance that has marked earlier renditions of the piece.
The perfunctory staging also imbues much of the act with the feeling of a series of set pieces rather than a narrative arc.
But, oh, what set pieces they are. To begin with, there is the title number, with its precise comic byplay between Gyllenhaal’s George (Lapine and Sondheim drop the French spelling of the name) and Ashford’s Dot, Seurat’s model and often-ignored lover, as her complaints about posing in the sun are punctuated by George’s abrupt commands on how to pose.
Then, as George sketches a canine, Gyllenhaal transforms deliciously into the animal, his voice and body taking on the elasticity of an animated cartoon.
The painter’s proclivity to lose himself in the creation of his art – and at what cost – is further revealed in Gyllenhaal’s deeply understood ‘Finishing the Hat’.
The emotion swells exponentially with the duets that follow: the parting of the ways between Dot, now pregnant, and George in ‘We Do Not Belong Together’, and the haunting and aptly titled ‘Beautiful’, sung by Penny Fuller as George’s mother and Gyllenhaal.
Then, as the act comes to a close, the full magic, both visually and aurally, does kick in, as George arranges his various models into their final poses for the painting, and Sondheim’s ‘Sunday’ chorale is gloriously realised in a melding of the 13-piece orchestra, conducted by Chris Fenwick, and the voices of the ensemble.
The enchantment continues in Act II, which moves ahead into contemporary times. At the Chicago art museum where Seurat’s painting is on view, a reception is being held to unveil a new work of art, a light sculpture – one in a series of such works known as Chromolumes – by a conceptual artist also named George and also played by Gyllenhaal.
George is accompanied by his grandmother, who we learn is the child of Seurat and Dot. The contemporary George is successful but the commercial aspects of the art world – as delineated in the scintillating ‘Putting It Together’ – are getting to him.
He still has lessons to learn, lessons that come forth grandly as the act progresses, in Ashford’s touching portrayal of the grandmother and her transformation back to Dot and the final re-creation on stage of Seurat’s painting, with an even more soaring reprise of ‘Sunday’.
For most of Act II, the scrim is gone, replaced by a replica of the Seurat painting, and the staging smartly takes on the brittle glamour of an art museum society event.
The realisation of the Chromolume, with its dots of light floating over the audience, is thrilling, and the performances of Gyllenhaal and Ashford continue to inform the work beautifully. Ashford’s ‘Children and Art’ is heart-rending in its simplicity, and their final duet ‘Move On’ rapturously validates artistic aspiration.
The auspiciousness of the production is also reflected in the bevy of Broadway names filling out the supporting cast.
To name a few, in addition to the aforementioned Penny Fuller, there are Ruthie Ann Miles, Robert Sean Leonard, Erin Davie, Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin and Jordan Gelber.
Underscoring the show’s theme of art’s continuity through generations, the director, whose vision firms up as the show proceeds, is Sarna Lapine, a niece of James Lapine, who in addition to writing the show’s book directed the original 1984 production.
On a final note, the producers have said they will not submit the show and its performers for any of the season’s awards competitions, including the Tonys.
In a statement, they said they feel: “this extremely limited, special run of Sunday stands most appropriately outside of any awards competition. The production is nevertheless proud to be part of such a landmark Broadway season.”
Gyllenhaal and Ashford will have to deal only with the adoration of audiences and reviewers.
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