One of the more cerebral Broadway musicals ever conceived, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park with George" imagines painter Georges-Pierre Seurat during the creation of his most famous painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and then leaps forward a century, to explore the creative crisis of Seurat's (fictional) great-grandson.
In order for the show to work, it needs humanity and warmth to temper the intellectualism and bring the characters to life -- qualities that were sorely missing in the show's most recent Broadway incarnation, in 2008, an elegant, but ice-cold production imported from London's Menier Chocolate Factory.
For the newest Broadway revival, though, we get not just humanity and warmth, but intimacy, tenderness, bursts of humor, and flashes of tremendous beauty -- we get, in effect, as accomplished a production of "Sunday in the Park with George" as we are likely to ever see. Headlined by a very impressive Jake Gyllenhaal (yes, he really can sing), and an altogether stupendous Annaleigh Ashford, what could be a mere exercise in coy postmodernism becomes something moving and true.
This incarnation, directed by book writer James Lapine's niece, Sarna, originated as a semi-staged concert last fall at New York City Center. The producers haven't necessarily scaled things up for the Broadway transfer. There are no real sets to speak of, only a scrim behind which the onstage orchestra performs, and against which images of Seurat's sketches are projected. Yet almost from the first instant, we are wholly transported to 19th century Paris, on an island in the Seine, where Seurat has brought his lover Dot (Ashford) to pose for him.
Much of the show's success has to do with its lead performers. Full of beard, his bright blue eyes burning with determination, Gyllenhaal makes for a very convincing artist on the verge of either a nervous breakdown or a creative breakthrough (or both).
Ashford has the trickier job, though, which is to convey that "Sunday in the Park with George" is ultimately a story of thwarted love, as Dot pines for a brilliant man whose head is ultimately millions of miles away. The actress -- who won the Tony for "You Can't Take It With You" -- draws out Dot's aching desire and frustration, but also the character's steeliness and less volubly expressed ambition. The result is a genuinely palpable romance, both sexy and poignant. In the second act, both actors shift effortlessly into their modern-day personas -- Gyllenhaal as the great-grandson; Ashford as Seurat's now-elderly daughter -- helping to smooth what sometimes seems an abrupt transition.The second act of "Sunday in the Park with George" takes place 100 years after the first act, where a descendant of Georges Seurat struggles with a creative crisis. Both Seurat and his descendant are played by Gyllenhaal. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)Christopher Kelly | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Sondheim's music and lyrics are among his most wildly ambitious, as they attempt to find an aural correlative for Seurat's pointillist brush strokes. But whereas songs like "Color and Light" -- in which Georges sings as he paints, "More red... / And a little more red... / Blue blue blue blue" -- can come off as overwrought or borderline silly, here they take on an urgency and quiet intensity. (The superb orchestra is conducted by Chris Fenwick.) Heresy alert: As a singer, Gyllenhaal doesn't have the depth or power of Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role in 1984, but I prefer many of these newer takes on the songs over the ones on the original cast album.
The simplicity of director Lapine's approach throws into relief the production's cleverest touches, much like splashes of shocking color on a white canvas. Consider the bright, shimmering costumes by Clint Ramos, rendered in a rainbow of hues that capture the spirit of Seurat's paintings, if not the actual palette. Or the inspired staging of modern-day George's installation at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show never entirely makes it clear if it's satirizing George's contemporary artwork or celebrating it, and as strings of lights drop from the ceiling and then undulate in waves over our heads, Lapine and lighting designer Ken Billington brilliantly split the difference. They remind us how groundbreaking art can be simultaneously ridiculous and visionary.
The excellent supporting cast includes Robert Sean Leonard ("Dead Poet's Society"), Ruthie Ann Miles (a Tony winner for the recent "The King and I" revival) and Phillip Boykin ("The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess"), all playing various figures who found their way into Seurat's epic painting, and, later, contemporary art patrons. By the time the show arrives at its glorious penultimate number -- "Move On," Sondheim's cri de coeur that applies to both art and life -- I was both beaming with delight and starting to mist up. This revival makes the strong case that, more than "Sweeney Todd," "A Little Night Music," "Assassins" or "Follies," "Sunday in the Park with George" is Sondheim's crowning achievement.Sunday in the Park with George
139-141 W 44th St, New York
Tickets: $49 - $169; available online at www.ticketmaster.com. Through April 23.
Christopher Kelly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chriskelly74. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.