Must one accept Seurat’s signature painting as a masterpiece in order to accord the Sondheim/Lapine musical it inspired comparable status? It wouldn’t hurt. It’s problematic enough that the current revival, a somewhat slapdash extrapolation of the concert version mounted at City Center in October, stints on production values. Clint Ramos’ costumes are uncharacteristically garish, Beowulf Boritt’s “set” a ratty scrim flung up to capture projections (while shielding the onstage orchestra). The entire experience founders in middle-brow territory, despite the presence of a panoply of well-regarded Broadway regulars, largely wasted in minor roles.
The main reason to go is to witness Jake Gyllenhaal take to the musical stage with phenomenal aplomb. As depicted by the creators, Seurat is not a fun guy – recessive, obsessive, maybe borderline OCD, he’s hard to render fascinating, or even appealing. But Gyllenhaal succeeds. His musical interpretation is rich in timbre and nuance – so astoundingly accomplished, yet seemingly effortless, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to tackle opera next.
As Dot, his fictional paramour, Annaleigh Ashford overplays the brassy. It’s a pity, too, that the hair-and-makeup team has done nothing to make her look “period”; at the very least, they might have noticed that Dot’s counterpart in the painting is brunette. (Director Sarna Lapine also has Seurat sketching her from the wrong side, but no matter.)
Ashford can be touching when she chooses, as she proves in the “contemporary” (i.e., 1984) second act, playing Dot’s fictional daughter Marie, now 98 and wheelchair-bound. Ashford’s choice to portray senility with a thrust-jaw grimace is schticky but worth waiting out for her tender, pianissimo rendition of “Children and Art.” This gentle paean to the power of creativity proves a fitting antidote to the whiny, bitter, depressive George of Act II, a supposed descendant of George the first. That Gyllenhaal can engender empathy in this incarnation as well serves as further testament to his irresistible, seemingly unstudied appeal.