Broadway Musical: Sunday in the Park with George
By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Broadway, Musical Revival
Runs through 23 April 2017
Hudson Theatre, NYC
Review by Ran Xia
BOTTOM LINE: A thoroughly innovative and moving revival of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George is a timely reminder of the importance of art.
Suppose many years ago, Stephen Sondheim took one first look at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886). Suppose from a distance, the canvas that Georges-Pierre Seurat had painstakingly covered with countless dots shimmered, as colors and light gleamed into shapes and stories. Suppose the composer then asked the question: What did Seurat see?
Sunday in the Park with George is about what Seurat saw, but also about how he saw everything. The 2017 Broadway revival, directed by Sarna Lapine (James Lapine's niece) captures the essence of Sondheim and Lapine’s masterpiece, which in every way also reflects Seurat’s revolutionary artistic visions. The impressionist painter and draftsman, who in his short-lived career devised chromoluminarism and pointillism, introducing what was then cutting-edge science into the artistic realm, was ridiculed by his contemporaries. Seurat’s life and personality were compounded with contradictions as he persisted in bringing balance, order, and harmony out of chaos; juxtaposing stark-contrasting colors while blending them into nuanced shades; and challenging spectators’ perceptions in order to instill life in his art. The musical is also exquisitely designed: each line of lyrics has its balancing twin; motifs gets repeated like the red and blue dots on Seurat’s canvas; and variations of the same themes dig deep into the story like a Fibonacci spiral expanding into infinity.
Sunday in the Park with George features some of the loneliest characters in musical theatre. Act I follows George (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he creates his iconic painting, while also tracking his relationship with his muse and companion Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), who is quite possibly based on Madeleine Knobloch, with whom Seurat had a son. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the sensitive and unyielding George highlights the painter’s idiosyncrasy and his life in constant isolation: as an observer, an architect of the interactions of his characters, George lingers on the fringes of human connections. And his perfect concentration makes it impossible for him to sustain a fulfilling relationship with the woman he loves. There is the famous, utterly silly yet perfect moment during "The Day Off," when George weaves a narrative and creates dialogue between the two dogs he’s sketching, going down on all fours, talking to himself back and forth as he pretends to be each of the two dogs. Gyllenhaal's energetic performance, after many scenes of quiet sullenness, makes George's loneliness become strikingly clear.
Equally enchanting is Ashford’s Dot, with a soul as restless as the painter who cannot look at her enough. Ashford's Dot is scrappy, quirky, practical, and ultimately wise. She is the spiritual being that ties the story together, both for the painter George, as well as for his descendants in Act II. The George of Act II (also Gyllenhaal) is a modern artist and self-proclaimed inventor, whose "Chromolume" is a tribute to Seurat. Dot’s infant daughter is now the 98-year-old Marie (Ashford again). As we start to question the relevance of George’s "brave new form," a haunting parallel starts to appear, connecting the two Georges of past and present—in both cases, we see how the artist struggles as he attempts to keep his integrity while making connections in the art world.
The New York City Center production's transplant features a stellar ensemble: Phillip Boykin’s Boatman, Robert Sean Leonard’s Jules, Claybourne Elder’s Soldier, just to name a few, all leave lasting impressions. With a dedicated orchestra, Ann Yee and Chris Fenwick stage and direct an excellent musical arrangement. Beyond that, the most impressive elements of the show are the set and projection designs. Beowulf Boritt’s minimalistic set includes a single sheet of translucent backdrop onto which Tal Yarden’s projections follow George’s progress, adding or erasing to his drawings. Ken Billington’s lighting design also complements the projections, making the stage and the backdrop morph into each other seamlessly. The design team creates an ostensibly simple yet intricate playground for the actors, an exemplary case of combining elements of both visual art and performance. And most striking is the Chromolume in Act II—it's a breath-taking spectacle to behold, a magical moment birthed out of the welding of art and technology.
Of course, some of the show's most powerful moments are when we discover George in quiet contemplation as he continues to discover and redefine himself in pursuit of his legacy; or in the raw and desperate tension between the lovers who "do not belong together," until they are reunited through the linage of George’s creations.
This production is the best of both worlds: simultaneously delicate and bold of execution, both minimalistic and intricate of style. It’s a feast of colors and sound for art connoisseurs. And as for the artists in the audience who share George's lonely path, they will undoubtedly weep tears of understanding.
(Sunday in the Park with George plays at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street, through April 23, 2017. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $49.00 - $169.00 and can be purchased through visiting by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or by visiting thehudsonbroadway.com.)
Sunday in the Park with George has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by James Lapine. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Projection design by Tal Yarden. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Kai Harada. Co-projection design by Christopher Ash. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Music coordination by Seymour Red Press. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Production supervision by Peter Lawrence. Casting by Carrie Gardner/Stephen Kopel. Technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates. General management by 101 Productions, Ltd. Musical staging by Ann Yee, Music direction by Chris Fenwick.
The cast is Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Mattea Marie 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, and Andrew Kober.
Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th St New York, NY, 10036
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