By: Isa Goldberg
Looking haggard and deep in thought, Jake Gyllenhaall makes his Broadway musical debut as George Seurat in this, the second Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park with George. Watching this production at a Wednesday matinee, the audience greeted Gyllenhaal with an unprecedented silence – a rare moment of respect for a movie star, while Annaleigh Ashford (Dot), who makes her entrance just moments after his, received thunderous applause. A Broadway legend, in her own day, Ashford delivers a subtle performance – as serious as it is humorous.
Gyllenhaal, however, is masterful in his own right. While he is not a singer on par with the likes of Mandy Patinkin, who created the role on Broadway, Gyllenhaal works with an entirely different stage vocabulary. Take The Day Off, a song George sings about painting The Dog in his 1884 masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. “Rolling around in mud and dirt/Begging a bone on Sunday,” are literally portrayed by Gyllennhall, as he transforms into that character, “Roaming around on Sunday/Poking among the roots and rocks.” The rawness of Gyllenhaal’s voice rings true, and he is physically riveting, bringing to mind the bizarre animations in video games. Not an inappropriate comparison, that. After all, Seurat’s edgy work, dismissed for its pointillist style, was also outré in its day.
In fact, Gyllenhaal’s hands appear to have lived holding onto that pointillist’s brush. With them he pokes gracefully, disseminates light, embraces balance, and tells us this enchanting story as it was written, by James Lapine.
In the second act, George (Gyllenhaal) appears again as Seurat’s grandson, creating works he calls “Chromolumes,” a display of “light,” “color,” “harmony,” “balance,” “tension,” and music, much the way that his grandfather had envisioned his own artistic process nearly a century earlier. And Ashford, Seurat’s model and muse becomes the grandmother of young George, embracing her memories of the man who painted her as Dot.
There is an essential nostalgia to the production that is belied by the uniqueness of its style. Indeed, there is no other musical like it, still it stands on the shoulders of all great musicals, as it extols masterpiece, in and of itself. Like George’s Chromolumes, Sondheim’s songs speak about “order, design, opposition, tone, symmetry…” And that is where we enter, watching a blank canvas come to life with endless possibilities.
Helmed by Sarna Lapine, there is genuine daring to her directorial concept, which underplays the romanticism of the musical composition. More prominent here is the ensemble of actors – Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, and Penny Fuller, among them, who emerge “In the middle of the summer/On an island in the river on a Sunday.” It is all simply divine!
Sunday In The Park with George **** 1/2
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Photos: Matthew Murphy