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Sunday in the Park With George

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 26, 2016

Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sunday in the Park With George, the Pulitzer Prize-winning James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim musical, tells the intertwining stories of two artists born a century apart who both struggle with maintaining their artistic integrity and unique visions when faced with critics (amateur and professional alike) who don't see the world they do or understand what they're attempting. Maybe that's why the City Center concert production of the show, which wraps up its four-performance run today, works as well as it does: because no one in the company is sitting on their laurels any more than the Georges are.

This is certainly most true of Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays both the 19th-century Impressionist, Georges Seurat, and his more modern-minded great-grandson in 1984. Though Gyllenhaal remains best known as a screen star (Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler, and more), he's been making major inroads onto the New York stage in recent seasons. He was the surprise highlight of the Off-Broadway production of If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet in 2012, and was stunningly good in two unaccountably different roles last year: as an earthbound lover in the scientifically chaotic romantic tearjerker Constellations on Broadway, and as the lovable horticulturist Seymour Krelborn in last year's Encores! Off-Center concert of Little Shop of Horrors.

None of these characters exactly suggests that Gyllenhaal would be able to marshal the necessary resources (emotional and vocal) to succeed at, let alone merely fill, Sondheim and Lapine's Georges, who were originated by the gifted and idiosyncratic Mandy Patinkin and are thus anything but easy. Given the legendarily short rehearsal times of these mountings, he'd be further impeded. And up against Annaleigh Ashford, the full-on theatre creature cast as the linked muses in the Georges' lives, wouldn't Gyllenhaal's relative lack of relevant experience be more noticeable than ever? Many theatre lovers I know (and, uh, I in occasional moments) feared as much.

As it turns out, Gyllenhaal is much better than could be hoped for. He wields a shockingly well-trained and rangy singing voice that sounds as if it's matured three or four years in the 16 months since Little Shop. He effortlessly navigates the high notes and the difficult pointillist passages during which Seurat is crafting his masterpiece, and fills the sustained sections (some of them quite lengthy) with a build and richness that are often lacking in many more established musical theatre talents. Beyond that, though, is his command of the Georges, which is thorough and convincing, from the inside out.

Jake Gyllenhaal and the cast.
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Seurat is a fully brusque man on the exterior, but he's also just marginally in touch with the boy underneath who craves approval, whether from his colleagues or women. Gyllenhaal shows the battle between these urges, resulting in a man who is, to quote a lyric, "bizarre, fixed," but not "cold." And because he leaves this conflict unresolved at the first act curtain, there's even more vivid room than usual for the later George to take up arms himself at the urging of his progenitor's creations and fuse all parts of his personality into a new determination to do what's right for him and his craft. Many actors in the role excel at one George or the other, but Gyllenhaal's bridge between the two is the clearest and most complete I've seen. Gyllenhaal is driven (his "Finishing the Hat" is laser-focused), funny (he doesn't overdo the dog badinage in "The Day Off"), and broken ("Lesson #8"), and never in merely the ways you expect.

Ashford gives a more traditional performance, but one that's accomplished in its own right, and its own kind of stretch for this acclaimed musical-comedy actress (though her Tony was for a daffy turn in the revival of You Can't Take It With You.) As Seurat's mistress Dot, she nails the impatience and the neediness at the woman's core, which is required to propel her through songs that find her outlining the difficult course of her life. What she makes somewhat less evident is the passion beneath, Dot's adoration of Seurat as someone she recognizes as a genius but can't explain why. You don't sense, as you ought to, that she knows with every knife she drives into their relationship, she's excising herself a bit more from history. She's better—dry, droll, and understated—as Marie, the 1980s George's grandmother, who's trying to get both her grandson and the world to understand there is (and ought to be more) to living than conventional wisdom suggests.

Many of the supporting players, too, almost all major names, are cast against type, but do very well: Zachary Levi as Seurat's jealous colleague Jules, Carmen Cusack (late of Bright Star) as his wife Yvonne, Phylicia Rashad as George's deceptively lucid mother, Gabriel Ebert as Jules's amorous German servant and Ruthie Ann Miles as his wife, Philip Boykin as an easily agitated boatman, and more. Their portrayals are not always packed with detail—that minimum rehearsal period, again—but they're all at the very least accomplished, and many are much more than that. (It helps that nearly all of Lapine's book was used, so no one had to contend with the typically difficult Encores! cuts.)

They all sound sumptuous, too, particularly in the sprawling closer of each act, "Sunday," which assembles the wayward pieces of the artists' fractured minds, and "It's Hot Up Here," the wry second-act opener that gives Seurat's charges their due. But all of Sondheim's songs land, even when director Sarna Lapine's staging is a bit too minimalist to do them visual justice. (Anyone unfamiliar with the show would not have an easy time, for example, deciphering Jules and Yvonne's "No Life" without the living figures or "Putting It Together" without the George stand-ins.) And musical director Chris Fenwick is in fine control of his orchestra throughout, with Michael Starobin's brushstroke orchestrations sharply rendered at every turn.

Beowulf Boritt's set isn't much more than a platform; the costumes by Clint Ramos aren't much more than repurposed evening wear; the lights by Ken Billington are simple; and Wendall K. Harrington's projections, though excellent, can't carry as much dramatic weight as the scenic design in this show should. They don't really need to. In this format, Sunday in the Park With George warms the soul through its reminder that persistence and vision can overcome even the most daunting obstacles and help us see the world, however familiar it may be, in the blazing light of others' greatest imaginations.

Sunday in the Park With George
Through October 26
New York City Center Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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