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Theatre in Review: Sunday in the Park with George (Hudson Theatre)

Annaleigh Ashford, Jake Gyllenhaal. Photo: Matthew Murphy

This new revival of Sunday in the Park with George offers two stellar lead performances, an exceptionally fine supporting cast, and some of Stephen Sondheim's most ravishing songs. The production, which began life as a benefit gala for City Center, retains its marquee names in Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford -- and they are the best reason for revisiting Sondheim and James Lapine's two-part invention about the creative process. Oddly, this production doesn't give you much to look at -- a strange oversight in a musical about visual artists; it appears that its rather drab poster art was a portent of things to come.

Gyllenhaal, still best known for his film work, has become a game and gifted theatre leading man, taking on technically challenging roles in plays like Nick Payne's Constellations and crossing over into musical theatre with remarkable ease. Here he nails the feverish intensity of Sunday's fictionalized Georges Seurat, the radical impressionist whose masterwork, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," is the musical's organizing principle. He brings a fierce concentration to "Color and Light," a number that miraculously distills Seurat's pointillist technique in sonic form. Such dedication to his work -- which his colleagues dismiss as eccentric, an aesthetic abomination -- comes at the expense of Dot, George's sometime model and full-time lover, who quickly tires of being ignored while he paints far into the night. Later, the loss of Dot, who decamps to marry Louis, a nondescript baker (his pastry-making skills aside), provides the subtext to "Finishing the Hat," to which Gyllenhaal brings a wrenching sense of loss, admitting to himself that "the kind of woman willing to wait's/Not the kind you want to find waiting." In Act II, set in 1983, now playing George's American great-grandson, an avant-garde artist who works with light, Gyllenhaal captures every bit of irony and anger built into "Putting It Together," sung while navigating a cocktail party that is a minefield of critics, frenemies, gushing fans, and funders who need a little schmoozing to loosen their purse strings.

In contrast to Gyllenhaal's driven, visionary George, Ashford's Dot is a supremely practical, flesh-and-blood creature, possessed of a droll sensibility that puts her on an unstoppable collision course with George. In the title number, she makes vividly real every little irritant of posing for George -- the heat, sweat, and pain of holding still -- into priceless bits of comedy; she also delights in "Color and Light," powdering herself and imagining a career as a follies girl. But, when the gloves come off, in the bruising duet "We Do Not Belong Together," she is a more-than-equal antagonist. Some actresses turn this number into a statement of defeat; Ashford's Dot may be leaving George for a man she doesn't love, but she is nobody's patsy. In its own way, her will is as strong as his.

In Act II, Ashford finds plenty of hilarity as Marie, Dot's ninety-something daughter, also grandmother to the twentieth-century George, who has been drafted to help him debut his latest light sculpture. She also provides a delicate, touching reading of "Children and Art," Marie's statement about the things in life that really matter -- and, as a spectral version of Dot, who appears to counsel the modern-day George, she partners with Gyllenhaal in the piercingly beautiful "Move On," a song that is a manifesto, benediction, and reconciliation rolled into one.

In addition to her stars, the director, Sarna Lapine, has assembled a superb company, many of whom are notably overqualified for their small roles. Penny Fuller is deliciously dry in the first act George's imperious mother, making the most of "Changing," a melancholy ballad about time's passing; she is equally incisive in the second act as a dictatorial art critic. Robert Sean Leonard brings many shadings to the role of Jules, a conventional nineteenth-century painter who is bemused by -- and, perhaps, a little envious of -- George's innovations; Erin Davie charms as his ninny of a wife. Brooks Ashmanskas and Liz McCartney get their laughs as a pair of rich, vulgar Americans who bring home Louis (and Dot) as a souvenir of Paris. Phillip Boykin is a powerful, insinuating presence as a boatman, who comes to La Grande Jatte to relax and doesn't know that he wants to be in George's painting. Ruthie Ann Miles (as an adulterous servant), Claybourne Elder (as a stiff-backed soldier), and Ashley Park and Jenni Barber (as a pair of thrill-seeking young ladies) all have their moments.

Sunday in the Park with George is, arguably, the most daring piece in Sondheim's canon, which is really saying something; it is certainly the most moving of his collaborations with Lapine. It contains some of the most stirring numbers in Sondheim's catalog, including (in addition to those already mentioned) the first-act closer "Sunday," in which George, pulling order out of chaos, arranges the characters into the tableau that becomes "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." It's a stunning coup de théâtre, set to words and music that palpably evoke the ecstasy of creation. Still, there's no getting around the fact that the first act has its longeurs: To get to that glorious first-act finale, we spend a great deal of time with characters who, with one or two exceptions, are writerly squiggles of little inherent interest; that they are banal figures in a landscape is, of course the point -- George will transform them into something more meaningful -- but they occasionally make for tedious company.

The first act also features "The Day Off," in which George projects himself into the minds of his subjects, including a pair of dogs ("What's the muddle/In the middle?/That's the puddle/Where the poodle did the piddle.") It may be the only Sondheim number to suffer from a case of the cutes. (It's also the one moment when Gyllenhaal's performance leaps the rails, becoming almost embarrassingly hammy.) The show also takes on the exceptionally difficult task of introducing an entirely new set of characters in the second act; the problems of the modern-day George sometimes seem to pale in comparison to those of his ancestor.

The most disappointing aspect of Lapine's production is its sheer lack of visual appeal. The original was distinguished by Tony Straiges' inventive set design, especially for the first act, which rendered a kind of pop-up version of La Grande Jatte. In the 2008 Roundabout Theatre Company revival, which came to Broadway via London's Menier Chocolate Factory, David Farley's set was a blank canvas for the brilliant projections of Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network, which were frequently sketched in in full audience view. The current design, which may have been acceptable for a benefit gala, seems borderline bland. Beowulf Boritt's set goes the blank canvas route, with a scrim that flies in for rather mundane projections by Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash. Indeed, the production suffers from an overreliance on projections: Yarden and Ash provide the basics -- Seurat's painting, both in its finished form and at various stages of completion, as well as photo imagery of La Grande Jatte in the modern era -- but they are little more than basic backdrops. Clint Ramos' costumes faithfully follow Seurat's painting in the first act, but I missed the witty pointillist detail that Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward brought to the original; the second-act costumes don't seem especially evocative of 1983. On the plus side, Ken Billington, who also lit the 2008 production, provides some alluring sidelight looks, and Kai Harada's sound allows the intricate lyrics to be understood, even when delivered at breakneck pace.

Interestingly, the production's biggest design success is the realization of the modern-day George's light-art work, "Chromolume #7," here rendered as dozens of tiny lighting units on rigging points that fly in, forming various configurations. More than one production -- including the original -- has stumbled at this crucial juncture, but, this time out, it's so successful that it casts a shadow on the rest of the production design. Sunday in the Park with George, a show about artistic innovation, all but demands a groundbreaking design concept, the lack of which is rather painfully felt here.

Still, fans of this landmark musical will want to collect the performances of Gyllenhaal and Ashford; they'll also relish the opportunity to hear the score sung by a first-rate company, aided by Michael Starobin's gorgeous orchestrations. (Before the show and during intermission, check out the fabulous Hudson Theatre, a restored jewel box that provides Broadway with a much-needed additional house for intimate drama and musical theatre.) When Gyllenhaal, Ashford, and company tear into Sunday in the Park with George's songs, they tap into a deep vein of feeling, making palpable Sondheim and Lapine's major theme, that the artist's unstoppable drive to create is, really, another form of love. -- David Barbour

(24 February 2017)

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