Sunday In The Park With George

Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sunday in the Park with George” Photo Credit Matthew Murphy

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 New York City Center’s 2016 Encores! Series, 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 a 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 ancestor 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.

Sunday In The Park With George, Book by James Lapine, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Directed by Sarna Lapine, Music Direction by Chris Fenwick

With: Annaleigh Ashford (Dot/Marie), Brooks Ashmanskas (Mr./Charles), Jenni Barber (Celeste #2/Elaine), Philip Boykin ((Boatman/Lee), Mattea Conforti ((Louis/Rayne), Erin Davie ((Yvonne/Naomi), Claybourne Elder ((Soldier/Alex), Penny Fuller (Old Lady/Blair), Jordan Gelber (Louis/Billy), Jake Gyllenhaal (George), Robert Sean Leonard (Jules/Bob), Liz McCartney (Mrs./Harriet), Ruthie Ann Miles (Frieda/Betty), Ashley Park (Celeste #1/Theresa), Jennifer Sanchez (Nurse/Samantha), David Turner (Franz/Dennis), Max Chernin, Maryann Hu, Michael McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein (Ensemble).

Musical Staging by Ann Yee, Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Light Design by Ken Billington, Sound Design by Kai Harada.

Produced on Broadway by Ambassador Theatre Group, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Caiola Productions, Jeffrey Finn, Jere Harris and Darren Deverna, J/K/R/S, Claire-Bridget Kenwright, LD Entertainment, Benjamin Lowy & Adrian Salpeter, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jeanine Tesori, Riva Marker, in association with New York City Center (Arlene Shuler, President & CEO, Mark Litvin, Managing Director), and Adam Speers – Executive Producer for ATG. At The Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W 44th St, New York, NY.  The strictly limited engagement runs through April 23, 2017.

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Michael Hillyer

Author: Michael Hillyer

Michael Hillyer was an Associate Director at the 29th Street Rep, Blue Heron Arts Center and the Wings Theatre Company, and has directed elsewhere in New York at Playhouse 91, Theatre For The New City, the William Redfield Theatre, Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, the Nat Horne Theatre and the Irish Arts Center. His long-running horror-movie send-up at the American Renaissance Theatre, SLASHER, THE SPLATTER ROCK MUSICAL, was revived Off-Broadway at the Perry Street Theatre, choreographed by Susan Stroman. He has also directed at the John Drew Theatre (As You Like It), Millbrook Summer Playhouse (Morning's At Seven), Thomaston Opera House (Born Yesterday), the Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT (The Boy Who Cried Elvis) and the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH (Shenandoah, Man Of La Mancha), as well as at Cornell, Columbia and Seton Hall Universities. He has written articles about New York theatre for Backstage and The Village Voice.

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