I didn’t expect to be reviewing another production of Sunday in the Park with George so soon after the Huntington Theatre’s season opener last September, but who could resist checking out a Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford? Sarna Lapine – niece of the book writer, James Lapine, who did the original Broadway staging in 1984 – worked it up out of the sold-out one-night-only 2016 concert version, and though it’s fully designed, it retains some of the intimacy it must have had in concert. Sitting in the front of the mezzanine at the newly refurbished Hudson Theatre, which dates from the turn of the twentieth century, I felt very close to the actors, especially in the two-character scenes between Gyllenhaal’s Seurat and Annaleigh Ashford’s Dot. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a raked rhomboid with an upstage curtain hung like a circus tent that holds Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash’s projections. In the 2008 revival, which came to New York by way of the Meunier Chocolate Factory in London, the projections felt like a cut-rate approach to a musical that was so visually vibrant in 1984, especially in the first-act finale, “Sunday,” where Seurat puts together his canvas A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – which he had painted exactly a century before Lapine and Stephen Sondheim wrote their musical. But in this production of Sunday in the Park, the combination of Boritt’s and Yarden’s designs is elegantly understated and quite beautiful.
This is a very moving production, and it’s hard to imagine improving on the two starring performances. Gyllenhaal is as good as Adam Chanler-Berat was in the Huntington production – high praise – though his presence is less odd, perhaps just because he’s so handsome. Gyllenhaal is famous for his intensity, which can seem, on screen, heroic or disturbing. (Nightcrawler, which contains his most amazing performance, is the salient example of the second.) Here he draws on it to take us into George’s creative process, which is lyrical and transported and also melancholy because of its attendant loneliness. Gyllenhaal’s rendition of “Finishing the Hat,” which explores that process, is impassioned. I’d never heard him sing before – I wasn’t lucky enough to get a ticket for Little Shop of Horrors when he and Ellen Greene played in it for Encores! Off Center. He turns out to have a muscular baritone that he gets to show off mostly in “Color and Light” and parts of “The Day Off.” George is written for a tenor – the original George, Mandy Patinkin, rendered bits of it in falsetto – and that’s a stretch for Gyllenhaal, but the slight quaver in the high notes on “Finishing the Hat” and “Beautiful” is affectingly tender. (The night I saw the show, Liz McCartney substituted for Penny Fuller as George’s mother, and she was very fine on “Beautiful,” a mother-son duet that recent productions have made me appreciate in ways I never did before.)
Much as I’ve always liked Bernadette Peters’ original performance as Dot, Annaleigh Ashford, whom I’ve treasured on stage in the musical Dogfight and the most recent revival of You Can’t Take It with You, is even better – she’s magical. Her quicksilver wit and line-drawing economy of gesture lighten her scenes and give the emotion of a song like “We Do Not Belong Together” a glancing quality that’s ultimately devastatingly effective. And you can’t believe how much muted feeling she brings to “Children and Art” in the second act, when she plays Dot’s aged, wheelchair-bound daughter – the grandmother of the modern New York artist George, whose struggles take over the narrative after intermission. I’ve never even liked that damn song – well, not until now.
Act two is the curse of Sunday in the Park, but Sarna Lapine nearly makes it work, which is practically a miracle. I still don’t care for the second-act opener, the superfluous (and pointless) “It’s Hot Up Here,” and the museum scene, with its self-conscious bon mots and cozy, overstated satire, remains a problem – though less so because of what Yarden and Ash, lighting designer Ken Billington and sound designer Kai Harada have done with Chromolume #7, late-twentieth-century George’s light sculpture. (It’s the first attempt by a production of the musical that makes you understand why modern-day George’s work has garnered so much attention.) And when the show returns us to La Grande Jatte for the final scene and George gets to interact with Dot’s ghost, the stage is once more suffused with the feeling that Gyllenhaal and Ashford brought to act one.
I rarely missed the more extravagant touches of the 1984 production, but in the absence of Dot’s removable dress for the title number, the choice to have her wriggle out of her outer layer and crawl on the stage floor felt clumsy and uninspired. (The lovely costumes are by Clint Ramos.) And I didn’t understand why, if there could be a cardboard cut-out dog for “Day Off” number, there couldn’t be two, so that it wouldn’t seem strange to have Gyllenhaal imagine a conversation between them with only one of them represented visually.
A number of familiar faces show up among the supporting cast, including Robert Sean Leonard as George’s art-school friend Jules; Leonard’s bio in the playbill tells us that he’s always loved Sunday in the Park so much that he was dying to be a part of this revival. The role doesn’t give him much to work with, but he conveys the character’s ambivalence about George with more humanity than most actors apply to him, and he gets a couple of laughs in the second act as the museum director, Bob, that no previous actor, in my experience, has ever unearthed. Phillip Boykin, the majestic bass who played Crown in the Porgy and Bess revival, is shoehorned into the role of the Boatman, but it’s good to have Brooks Ashmanskas as the boorish southern-American tourist (he dries out some of the role’s excesses), Jordan Gelber as Louis the baker (who marries Dot and raises George’s child) and Ruthie Ann Miles as Frieda, half of the domestic couple enjoying their Sunday picnicking on the island. Considering that the musical is so closely focused on the two principals, it’s a pleasant surprise to see a production that honors the contributions of the supporting cast as well. Under Chris Fenwick’s musical direction, the ensemble sings the Sondheim lyrics with admirable clarity as well as melodic distinction. Sunday in the Park with George’s limited run ends in about a month. I urge anyone close enough to Manhattan to see it.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.