New York City Theater
“Sunday in the Park with George” / 2017 revival
Not only are most critics not invited but the producers of the latest revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” will eschew competing for year-end awards. After all, why should a sure-fire, limited engagement hit comp reviewers and Tony voters with free tickets worth thousands of dollars? Better give that money to investors, producers and whoever else gets a cut.
Luckily, theatergoers are unaffected. (I bought a ticket.)
The main reason the ten-week run should sell out is the movie star playing the leading role. That would be Jake Gyllenhaal and, lest you think this is some sort of slumming gimmick, let it be known that he is terrific. He sings with an open voice, free of vibrato and filled with tenderness and power, and creates a character who is self-absorbed but not narcissistic, sensitive but not sentimental, confused about life but single-minded about art. More than others in this role, Gyllenhaal seamlessly fuses the two related characters he plays with intensity, intelligence and insight.
As Georges Seurat in act one, and just plan George in act two, Gyllenhaal is an artist in love with his art. Seurat is also in love with his model / muse Dot, but she must be sacrificed to his work. As for George, divorce has solved the same problem: women are around to inspire not interfere.
The Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine “Sunday” is a masterpiece, a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that combines and equates all the arts. Seurat’s pointillism, for which he was criticized in his time, is rhythmically matched so brilliantly by Dot’s staccato use of a powder puff. When sketching his subjects for what would become his most famous canvas, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.,” he’s oblivious to their comments. He places himself in the painting, not literally but figuratively. His subjects’ faces are obscured; these are individuals, part of the whole, integral to a canvas that forces the viewer’s eye and mind to mix shimmering colors. “I am not hiding behind my canvas,” says Seurat. “I am living in it.”
The first act takes place in France, 1884-6 and deals with Seurat’s creation. The second a hundred years later in Chicago (where the original painting may be seen at the Art Institute) and concerns the sellout and eventual salvation of George, Seurat’s great grandson, whose “Chromolume #7” is a spectacular light show that only repeats former creations. Where is the originality that obsessed his relative?
In the revival’s most moving scene, George and his grandmother Marie, the illegitimate child of Seurat and Dot, duet on “Children and Art.” The number is both as plaintive and as truthful as an artist’s struggles. “George is afraid / George sees the park / George sees it dying / George, too, may fade.”
As Dot and Marie, Annaleigh Ashford brings considerable comic gifts to her roles. The powerhouse cast includes Tony nominees and winners Penny Fuller, Robert Sean Leonard, Ruthie Ann Miles, Books Ashmanskas and Philip Boykin. Also in the cast is Ashley Park who should have received a Tony nom for her fine work in the recent “The King and I.” Here she’s impressive as a pert Celeste, one of the figures in the painting.
Beowulf Boritt’s minimal set relies on Ken Billington’s lighting and Tal Yarden and Chrsitopher Ash’s projections to engulf us. Conductor Chris Fenwick and the orchestra are excellent; Sarna Lapine’s direction is spirited.
But the evening belongs to Gyllenhaal. No producer should let the actor get away from the theater for very long. He’s that good. Too bad he’s been deprived of at least a Tony nomination. As one of the musical’s lyrics goes, “Art isn’t easy.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 27, 2017