For a limited 10-week engagement ending April 23, Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford will lead a cast of Tony winners and seasoned Broadway veterans in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Hudson Theater. Director Sarna Lapine’s production focuses on artistic obsession and the isolation that accompanies it. As a part of its star talent, the production also features two NYU alumni. Steinhardt alumna Ruthie Ann Miles, the second Asian actress to win a Tony, plays Frieda and Betty, and her powerful voice resonates through the theatre with incredible clarity and precision during both her roles. Tisch professor Michael McElroy shines in the ensemble.
In Act I, a liberally-bearded Gyllenhaal plays the 19th-century impressionist painter Georges Seurat, as he works on his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Ashford portrays his muse and model Dot, a woman who loves him but cannot fit into his work-consumed life. She eventually leaves him for a more practical suitor, Louis the Baker.
Sondheim’s soundtrack imitates the painter’s pointillistic style. It is generally unmelodious and demands complete vocal control and flexibility. Gyllenhaal displays his capacity for the soundtrack’s demands with his delivery of “Finishing the Hat,” conveying the painter’s isolation and restrained despair with a rich and steady timbre. In “Color and Light,” he stabs at a canvas with his brush, supported by Ken Billington’s perfectly-timed lighting design as he cries “red” and is boldly illuminated by the color for a striking effect. Ashford, on the other hand, has comedic edge and likeability, but her opening number “Sunday in the Park With George” lacks a final push. Her sound feels empty even within the stripped-back production design.
Act II skips forward a full century, with Gyllenhaal now playing George — Seurat’s descendant and American multimedia artist. Ashford trades corsets and rouge for a southern drawl and wheelchair, portraying Gyllenhaal’s 98-year-old grandmother Marie. Lapine’s directing shines in “Putting It Together,” a lengthy sequence of interactions exploring what an artist mudt do to succeed commercially. After Marie’s death, George makes a trip to Paris to install his piece “Chromolume #7” at the where his ancestor drew. Beowulf Borrit’s scenic design brings the City of Love onstage for “Lesson #8,” where George sings of his doubts, while the glimmering canals of Paris flicker behind him.
Sondheim’s unconventional score and Lapine’s lyrical torrents don’t stay looping in your head after you’ve left the theater, yet the show so wholly captures the essence of pointillistic art that a window is opened into the soul of George’s character, who would otherwise be inaccessible. If Seurat’s meticulous attention to detail had carried through, there is no doubt that the production would have found that final push it needed to be truly transcendent.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 27 print edition.
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