Sunday in the Park with George

Review by Michael Hillyer
February 24, 2017

Sarna Lapine's stunning new production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George, which has welcomed back the newly renovated Hudson Theatre to the ranks of Broadway houses after a half-century absence, is an excellent example of why less is often more.

The same could not be said for the lavish Hudson Theatre itself, and its comfortable new seats; the opulent lobby is embellished with elaborate decorative molding and studded with Tiffany stained glass light fixtures, while the lush theatre interior is a somewhat more subdued, tiered palace of cream paneling accented with blue, green and gold mosaic tile clusters. The contrast between this Gilded Age show-palace and the Spartan, almost concert-style production onstage could not be more dramatic, but make no mistake about it: this Sunday In The Park With George is a jewel in its own right, radiant with talent, and shimmering with color and light.

A red-hot transfer from off-Broadway's New York City Center, this anticipated revival features Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in a limited run, heading a stellar, multi-ethnic supporting cast composed of veterans like Robert Sean Leonard, Penny Fuller, Philip Boykin and Ruthie Ann Miles, as well as Sondheim's achingly beautiful musical score, in a pared-down concert version, staged with rigorous simplicity by Ms. Lapine in front of an onstage orchestra. Beowulf Boritt's smart set design, a gently raked bare stage bordered by an upstage scrim, becomes the blank canvas of the artist Georges Seurat (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is working to bring order, design and composition to his famous pointillist masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," while his favorite model and live-in lover, Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), competes vainly for his attention. Seurat's struggle between his art and his life with Dot forms the central conflict of the first act, while the second act shifts a century ahead to his descendant, George, the sculptor of a series of electronic displays of light and sound he calls Chromolumes. This George is wrestling with his inability to express himself in a new way while still competing for various commissions to finance his complicated and expensive Chromolumes in today's commercial art world. A trip to the present-day Paris on L'Ile de la Jatte to install a Chromolume exhibition brings George back full circle to his famous forbearer and to an insightful final reunion with Dot as well as a fuller understanding of his need to move on as an artist and a man.

From the thrilling, familiar, opening arpeggiated chords of Sunday In The Park With George, itself a masterpiece, to the final, heart-breaking crescendo in the resplendent finale, this production will hold you enraptured throughout and leave you nearly spent of all emotion at its conclusion. During the crescendo of the act one finale, "Sunday," as Seurat's painting achieves its finished, concentrated realization of composition, balance and harmony, I was, quite literally, shaking in my seat. Mr. Gyllenhaal's performance of "Finishing The Hat" alone is worth the price of admission; who had any idea that he could sing so well? He is more than matched by the superb, tour-de-force turn of Ms. Ashford, whose devastating rendition of "We Do Not Belong Together" brought the Hudson Theatre's audience to its knees, and whose delivery of the second act's "Move On" made for herself a place in the pantheon of all-time great Broadway performances, no lie. Talk about not a dry eye in the house, even the ushers were weeping openly.

Under the direction of Chris Fenwick, the orchestra performs brilliantly, with orchestrations by Michael Starobin, and while the production elements are select, they are telling, with excellent costumes by Clint Ramos and light design by the ever-amazing Ken Billington. Chromolume #7, before it malfunctions (as it is scripted to do) is a visual knockout, but to tell the truth, it is just some lights suspended from the ceiling of the theatre. Less is more.

This is doubtless going to become the hottest ticket in town, but you are nonetheless here encouraged to snag one by any means possible. I don't want to overstate myself, but that would be difficult to do: this is a production for the ages, as good as it gets, a performance so exceptional, so overwhelming, you might be lucky enough to see something like it once, maybe twice in a lifetime.

(Michael Hillyer)

"He is a thorny soul, a man neither happy nor particularly kind, and not someone you'd be likely to befriend. But when the 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat, reincarnated in the solitary flesh by a laser-focused Jake Gyllenhaal, demands that you look at the world as he does, it's impossible not to fall in love. Or something deeper than love — closer to religious gratitude — is the sentiment you may experience in the finale that concludes the first act of the marvelous revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 'Sunday in the Park With George.'"
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Jake Gyllenhaal's got it, by George! A handsome, nimble singing voice to go with his solid acting chops, that is. It's all on exhibition in Broadway's wonderful revival of 'Sunday in the Park with George' at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"Now 34 years old, the musical's art-world satire still cuts and its emotional climax still brings tears. It began Sondheim's late (and, arguably, most unguarded and daring) period, including the formal innovations of In the Woods, Assassins and Passion. Sunday remains a masterpiece that affirms the painful, isolating joys of creation, and the need to learn new lessons. Like a densely plotted canvas, it's worth seeing, no matter where or how it's hung."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"A superlative revival imbued with the sense of discovery of an exciting new work."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"Under the direction of Sarna Lapine, the staging is more theatrically structured than it was at City Center, with its stools and lecterns. But even as retooled, the show retains the quality of serene simplicity that heightens the poignant beauty of the score. Gyllenhaal returns in the leading role, his acting chops intact, but his voice refreshed and enhanced by what must have been professional coaching."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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