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A CurtainUp Review
Sunday in the Park with George
By Elyse Sommer
Sunday. . . launched a musical theater match made in heaven: Songwriter-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine. High tech or low tech, the great score, brilliant lyrics and witty story telling make for a one-of-a-kind theatrical feast to be relished by anyone interested in musical theater. It's a unique, challenging score demands concentration, but listen carefully and you'll be richly rewarded.
The show is, of course a double masterpiece. It uses Sondheim's masterful musicality and Lapine's imaginative script to depict Georges Seurat's struggle to create his huge masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Sondheim and Lapine's own slowly developed interpretation of the painting's painstaking development is a breathtaking commentary on what it's like to create a work of art — or as one of the breakout songs so pungently puts it, "Finishing the Hat."
The current production is a treat whether you've seen it before or not. It began life last year as an Encores! concert at City Center. The big surprise of that concert was Jake Gyllenhall. We already know this was a movie star could also deliver the goods on stage (If There Is I Haven't Found It, Constellation). It confirmed that his trial run as a singer in another Encores! revival, Little Shop of Horror, wasn't a fluke. Gyllenhaal's superb lyric tenor was the real McCoy, fully up to the intricacies and demands of the complex songs.
New York theatergoers who missed that script-in-and Encores! presentation are in luck. They can now see Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, who played Seurat's model, in an expanded production and longer-running production's at Broadway's re-opened Hudson Theater. They're better than ever, and like Sondheim and Lapine, a dream team!
Gyllenhall's lyrical tenor voice and acting are as rich and colorful as those pointillist dots we see him dab on his canvas in sync with the staccato rhythm of the orchestra. He captures his character's obsessive focus on adding his special vision to the impressionist era. He also has a wonderful lighter moment as in "The Day Off" he takes over the yap-yapping of the dog sketches he tries to position into the panoramic canvas.
The equally remarkable Ashford brings thrilling vocals and a great depth of feeling to the bittersweet artist-model romance, and the comic flair that won her a Tony for her part in You Can't Take It With You is in full force for her deliciously droll second act reappearance as the Marie, the 98-year-old proud grandmother of Georges turned into great-great grandson George.
Like Gyllenhaal and Ashford, the actors, all gorgeously costumed by Clint Ramos, who step in and out of the masterwork in progress and again in the second act's 100-year fast forwarding scenes, are outstanding. Robert Sean Leonard elegantly and imposingly segues from well-connected artist to equally well-connected, successful museum director. Penny Fuller navigates the role of Georges' mother and a glamorous art critic with equal aplomb. I could go on, but this is a large ensemble, so I'll just stop here with a big bravo to all.
This Sunday in the Park doesn't have the elaborate projections of the last Broadway revival. But the earlier script-in-hand straight concert presentation has been enhanced with just enough of the visual aids that contribute so much to the magic of watching Gyllenhaal as Seurat's stand-in fill in that huge canvas — dot by dot, song by song.
Under the direction of Sarna Lapine's (The book writer and original director's niece) the larger but modest by Broadway standards staging retains the intimacy of its Encores! roots, notably by keeping the 13-piece band on stage throughout, with the scrim curtain between the musicians and the actors serving as a handy backdrop for the projections. The lack of more big bang scenery is offset by the fact that it lets the show's chief star — the music — shine.
While the Seurat painting is real, Sondheim and Lapine have taken liberties with the reclusive painter's history letting. Thus the slyly named Dot and Georges reappear as their very different American heirs.
Though the first act in which we see the painting completed is the musical's cornerstone, there's nothing tacked on about that second act epilogue. In this production, that second act struck me more meaningful and entertaining than the last Broadway revival. For starters, there's the delightful opening number, "It's Hot Up Here", in which Seurat's models complain about how they were posed and had to endure the heat. But this is also where projection designer Tal Yarden has opted for some big Broadway-ish razzle dazzle.
That razzle -dazzle comes via Georges' fictional American great grandson who has followed in his footsteps as an installation sculptor. As a burst of colored lights turns the theater into a spectacular light and sound show, those lights actually echo Seurat's pointillism. For his heir that of course means that art is no easy stand-still pursuit but that snce this is his 7th such installation, he, like any artist, must find ways to "Move On."
If I have one complaint about this magnificent revival it's a quibble about the venue. At a time when the arts are facing financial cuts from a not particularly arts appreciative administration, it's wonderful to see the comeback of an artistic jewel launch the long closed Hudson Theater's re-opening. The venue has been beautifully refurbished, but as the powers that be in Washington seem to be penny pinching with a threatened shutting down of the NEA, so the Ambassador Theater Group seems to have made money-making refreshment bars in their lobby a priority over decent sized bathrooms.
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Sunday in the Park with George
Hudson Theatre 139-141 West 44th Street
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Sarna Lapine.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (George), Annaleigh Ashford (Dot,, Marie), Brooks Ashmanskas (Mr.Charles Redmond,), Jenni Barber (Celeste #2, Elaine), Phillip Boykin (Boatman, Lee Randolph, Max Chernin (Ensemble), Mattea Marie Conforti (Louise), Erin Davie (Yvonnne,Naomi Eisen), Claybourne Elder (Soldier,Alex), Penny Fuller (Old Lady, Blair Daniels), Jordan Gelber (Louis, Billy Webster), Robert Sean Leonard (Jules, Bob Greenberg), Liz McCartney (Mrs.,Harriet), Ruthie Ann Miles (Frieda, Betty), Ashley Park (Celeste #1,Waitress),Jennifer Sanchez (Nurse), David Turner (Franz/Dennis)
Ensemble: Max Chernin, MaryAnn Hu, Michael McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein, MaryAnn Hu
Set design by Beowulf Boritt
Projection design by Tal Yarden
Costume design by Clint Ramos
Lighting design by Ken Billington
Sound design by Kai Harada
Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan
Make-up design by Joe Dulude II
Music coordination by Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations by Michael Starobin
Production supervision by Peter Lawrence
Runnng Time: 2 1/2 hours including 1 intermission
Hudson Theatre 139-141 West 44th Street
From 12/11/17; opening 2/23/17; closing 4/23/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/22/17 matinee press preview
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