Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 23, 2017
Sunday in the Park with George Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Music direction by Chris Fenwick. Musical staging by Ann Yee. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Projections design by Tal Yarden. Costume design by Clinto Ramos. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Kai Harada. Co-projections design by Christopher Ash. Hair & wig design by Cookie Jordan. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, with Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Mattea Conforti, Erin Davie, Claybourne Elder, Penny Fuller, Jordan Gelber, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Jennifer Sanchez, David Turner, Max Chernin, Maryann Hu, Michael McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein, Julie Foldesi, Laura Irion, Andrew Kober.
After all, this is an actor who has been a legitimate movie star for most of the 2000s to date (and who was not unknown before that), and whose screen career, in the wake of films like Southpaw and Nightcrawler, is only accelerating. But although his stage work has been acclaimed, both Off-Broadway (his debut was in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet for Roundabout in 2012) and on (Constellations, 2015), Gyllenhaal is rarely considered a "natural" rather than someone who's merely visiting.
If there's any justice, this production will change that. Those who were lucky enough to see the City Center Encores! benefit concert in October where Gyllenhaal first tackled the role know that he's thoroughly qualified for heading this 1984 musical, and as capable of doing justice to Sondheim's challenging songs as Lapine's intricate scenes. And now, in this scaled-up translation, he's even better.
He throws himself totally into Georges's obsessions and idiosyncrasies without losing grip on the gentle soul who resides beneath them. You feel the heat of his drive when he's toiling away at the painting that will become his masterwork, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," in which he's pushed to the brink of madness by his pursuit of science-inspired perfection (his style, Pointillism, involves using countless specks of paint to create colors more vivid than traditional brushstrokes can), and that's critical to unpacking Georges; "I am not hiding behind my canvas," he says at one point, "I am living in it."
But unlike every other actor I've seen play the role, Gyllenhaal projects the knowledgeor at least the suspicionthat he might be losing something when he steps into the so-called "real world." He's almost visibly pulled between his art and his model, Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), and though he's always prone to choose the former, for this Georges the choice is seldom easy. It's not that he wants to compromise, per se, but that, beneath his professional aspirations, there's a tiny ember he may also want to fan into a different, but no less intense, flame.
Could Gyllenhaal go further still? Yes. His tone is muted early on, and takes a few scenes to even out. And although his singing is surprisingly strong throughout the rangy songs (which, as far as I can tell, are in their original keys), his vocals could be more confident during the more contemplative numbers. But he unlocks so much earnest passion in "Color and Light" and "Finishing the Hat" (as Georges) and "Putting It Together" and "Lesson #8" (as George), that any complaints are ultimately little more than Monday morning quarterbacking. In every way that counts, he couldn't be more committed.
This is slightly, if noticeably, less true of what surrounds him. The direction of Sarna Lapine (the bookwriter's niece, who also directed the concert) is on the lean and informal side, and does not match Gyllenhaal's fire. It looks fine, if pulled-back, with costumes (by Clint Ramos), lights (by Ken Billington), projections (by Tal Yarden), and musical staging (by Ann Yee) that adroitly blend whimsy and concreteness, just as Seurat did. But Beowulf Boritt's set, which with a dusty backdrop and a shockingly tiny playing platform that makes expansive stage pictures almost impossible to create, strikes the wrong tone. And the general lack of additional set pieces renders some scenes that were designed for them, such as the second act's long fund-raising party scene in "Putting It Together," either underwhelming or confusing.
The acting can be a bit on the unusual side, too, slanted as it is to recast each person as being cast from the two Georges' minds: islands of unrealness amid his stream of unconsciousness. Most of the subordinating performances are subdued, starting with Ashford, whose Dot is keenly observed, visibly honest, robustly humorous, and ethereally sung, but tentative and lacking the sweep or stakes that might make her electrifying. Much the same can be said of Robert Sean Leonard and Erin Davie as a competing painter and his wife; David Turner and Ruthie Ann Miles as their German menials, whom Georges finds more interesting than their employers; and Penny Fuller as Georges's decaying mother and a withering art critic.
There are a few exceptions. Brooks Ashmanskas and Liz McCartney have a huge amount of ceiling-scraping fun as an American couple who visit the island, and Phillip Boykin finds wry shades of the elite philosopher in the "slovenly" Boatman. No one is ever unwatchable, or for that matter less than correct, and when they unite in song, never more than when "La Grande Jatte" assembles in the Act I finale "Sunday," they could not be more right. But much of the time, they do force additional, perhaps unneeded, focus on George and Georges, when balance might be more appropriate.
With his superb portrayal of those two men, Gyllenhaal brings, as Georges aspires, "order to the whole" in a way that dispels most nitpicking. You simultaneously love and hate the men, and you embrace and reject them, but above all you understand him in a way you haven't been able to before. What's more, you want to connect these dots and others and decipher the creation as well as the creatoron as many levels as you can in the time you have. It's a marvelous accomplishment that so accentuates every color that your brain and your heart will be just as pleased as your eyes.