There’s deep irony in the producers’ decision not to make the new revival of “Sunday in the Park With George” eligible for the Tony Awards. It is, after all, the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical that infamously lost the Tony for best musical to “La Cage aux Folles” in 1984.
Back then, the contest was between hummable show tunes and a musical that eschewed melody (at least the kind you could go out humming) in favor of novel changes in key and time signatures that highlight the lyrics.
In 2017, it’s easy to watch the new “Sunday,” which opened Thursday at the Hudson Theatre, and remember back to the days when Sondheim was called cold and analytical and unfeeling. Those are precisely the charges made against George Seurat in Lapine’s book, which also makes clear that the pointillist painter never sold a painting in his lifetime. That’s where the comparison between Sondheim and Seurat falters a bit. Sondheim got his musicals produced, but in the 1970s and 1980s few of his shows recouped to make even a modest profit.
Today, “Sunday in the Park” looks like Sondheim’s most personal musical. Much of the mild dissonance in the score’s first act isn’t immediately resolved. We have to wait until the act-one finale “Sunday,” when the various characters take their place in a magnificent replication of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.”
So let the producers withhold a few hundred tickets to Tony Awards voters and turn a profit, thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal starring stint as Seurat. This is the actor’s first musical on Broadway, after a couple of engagements at the super-limited-run Encores! concert series where this production debuted last fall.
He possesses a pleasant soft-grained singing voice. It’s not the classically trained instrument of his leading lady, Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Seurat’s impatient muse-mistress-model, Dot. But his singing is expressive and secure, a couple of wobbles in pitch and tone aside.
What most impresses is his gift for understatement as an actor. He’s never overtly edgy like the original George, Mandy Patinkin. Gyllenhaal takes a much less showy but moodier approach. He disappoints and irritates Dot not because he’s the wild, mad artist. His focus is simply elsewhere while he’s looking at and painting her. It’s difficult for an actor to make that kind of slow-burn concentration theatrical. Gyllenhaal makes it riveting.
His portrayal is much less focused in the second act, where he plays a more contemporary artist also named George, who may or may not be Seurat’s great-grandson but who is definitely the grandson of the unborn baby Marie (Ashford), whom Dot is carrying when she leaves George to move to America with her baker husband (the very sympathetic Jordan Gelber).
“Sunday” was originally staged at Playwrights Horizons with only the first act performed, the second act coming very late in that run and only finalized right before opening night in the subsequent Broadway production. Other great musicals have equally problematic second acts. Think “South Pacific.” What the second act of “Sunday” has going for it is Sondheim’s music, which develops some of the motifs introduced in the previous act. Also, act two is very short.
But who is this new, second George? Seurat never compromised. George Jr. is all about concessions, and the act-two setting at a museum gala is rife with tired, overly cynical jokes about commerce and art. At the Hudson Theatre, and in the original Broadway production at the Booth Theatre, it’s difficult to say if George’s lighting installation, titled “Chromolume #7,” is supposed to be art or a New Yorker cartoon lampooning modern art. Gyllenhaal again takes an understated approach to the character, but here something more galvanizing is needed.
Sarna Lapine’s direction in the first act is serviceable in its spare Encores! approach, but she doesn’t find the necessary shape or concept to hide the flaws in Lapine’s second-act book.
Fortunately, Sondheim’s score only gets better in the second act, and also there’s the delightful Ashford, double cast as the tough old granny in a wheelchair. Is this what Madonna will turn into when she hits her 90s?
In the first act, Ashford is a near dead ringer for the young Material Girl, and it’s not just her appearance. Bernadette Peters was cute and pert in the original. Ashford is a bit snarky, to the point that Seurat’s mistress might be a little gamey, too. Although Seurat’s masterpiece is the epitome of cool elegance today, the island of La Grand Jatte attracted the working class. Ashford’s Dot gives us a nice whiff of those workers on holiday.