SUPERLATIVE SONDHEIM: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (Hudson Theatre) Blissful, in a word, describes the newest production of Stephen Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Originally produced in 1983, this Broadway revival originated with Encores! , the annual series of concert versions of vintage musicals produced by New York City Center. Among Sondheim aficionados, SUNDAY is one of the more beloved works (of the many), a fictionalized bittersweet love story between French artist George Seurat and his model, using as creative motif and background his most famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jute”.
The story, ingeniously constructed by James Lapine, imagines Seurat in Paris in the mid 1880s having an affair with his model Dot (who eventually figures as the young figure in the bustle dress with parasol in lower right of the famous canvas). Dot loves George, but he’s so obsessed with his art, he can’t relate emotionally to Dot. He’s so consumed in searching for a new way to see the world; he can’t see his way to feel in real life. (Clever how the name Dot is a conceit for pointillism, one of the painting techniques for which Seurat is known.) Act 1 takes place in George’s studio or en plein aire on the Seine where he painted his famous canvas. Among the figures who come in and out of George’s Sunday afternoons - and onto his canvas - are George’s mother, his school friend and art dealer, a German couple with daughter who picnic every Sunday, a boatman with clay pipe, two soldiers and two juenes filles who flirt with them and a pair of silly American millionaire tourists. Ultimately, Dot, pregnant with George’s child, leaves George for the baker who takes her to a new life in America. Act 2 jumps to an American art museum, 100 years later, where a young artist named George who sees himself as a “sculptor/ innovator”, is presenting a new chromolume installation (chromolumism being another technique pioneered by Seurat) in the company of his nonagenarian grandmother, who, despite the skepticism of George and art scholars, insists she is Dot’s daughter. The play concludes with George visiting the scene of Seurat’s painting, where he reconciles his legacy and revisits the relationship of Seurat and Dot.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is a perfect fairy tale for adults. Sondheim and Lapine have informed George so intellectually, SUNDAY is chock-full of “big picture” themes: reality versus illusion, the artist’s elusive search for truth, the creative pursuit of new ways to observe the world. But in this beautifully staged production, the emotional pull of George and Dot’s love story overrides the intellectual. This is due in large measure to the altogether charming lead performances of Jack Gyllenhaal, a very fine actor who happens to be a movie star, and Annaleigh Ashford, a Tony-winner of recent Broadway fame. Neither has the bravura, nor the highly individualized vocal technique of Mandy Patankin and Bernadette Peters, the original George and Dot, but no matter. Both Gyllenhaal and Ashford know what they can and cannot do: Sondheim’s are not easy songs to sing. In Gyllenhall's George and Ashford’s Dot, the songs come from their heart, not the head, which makes their performances so touching, so memorable, so vivid.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE has a beautiful score, which has generated a handful of songs that are part of the “popular” Sondheim canon: “Finishing the Hat”, George’s melancholic admission of artistic obsession, George and Dot’s duet “We Do Not Belong Together”, an elegy to their failed relationship, and “Move On,” a muted clarion of hope for their lives apart.
The ensemble “Putting it Together” is always a crowd-pleaser, but “Sunday”, which concludes both acts, is, perhaps, Sondheim’s most moving composition, here, given beatific expression by a company which includes a most impressive supporting cast: stage veteran Penny Fuller (as George’s mother), former brat-packer Robert Sean Leonard (as Jules, George’s school chum), baritone Phillip Boykin (from the marvelous ON THE TOWN revival), Claybourne Elder (of BONNIE AND CLYDE, as a French soldier) and Brooks Ashmanskas (of SOMETHING ROTTEN, as a buffoonish rich American).
Costumes by Clint Ramos, modeled with understated wit and flair after clothing worn by figures in Seurat’s canvas, playfully use the colors from Seurat’s palette. Beowulf Boritt, scenic design, makes clever, unobtrusive use of just a few props, partially back-dropped by the Seurat canvas. Lighting designer Ken Billington creates a wonderful, original chromolume for Act 2, an array of multi-colored filaments suspended from the auditorium’s ceiling, that morph into a moving body of structural illumination. Kudos to director Sarna Lapine for “putting it together” so elegantly.
No matter how many times one has seen a Sondheim musical, there’s always a new discovery. His lyrics always intrigue, especially the alliterative. As George, on hands and knees, examines the grass on the island where his subjects have spent the afternoon, he comes across “the puddle where the poodle did the puddle.”
This SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is about as perfect as a semi-staged concert version of musical theater can get - a transcendent delight.
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