Last October, when it played New York City Center for a mere three days, the Jake Gyllenhaal-led Sunday in the Park with George left no time for the paint to dry. It was here, it was gone, and nothing was left but bragging rights. You had to forgive the braggers; the show was an outstanding showcase for one of Stephen Sondheim’s most gloriously complex scores, perfectly paired with an intellectually challenging yet playful book by James Lapine. Why was Sunday at City Center such an event? The energy of a limited run is unique and galvanizing. Unconstrained by complex blocking or much of a set, actors are freer to play around. Vocally, they may be more inclined to reach further, take bigger risks. Who knows when they’ll get another chance to do the role?
How about now? Several of the cast members are back for the Broadway re-mounting at the refurbished (very handsome) Hudson Theatre, including, most importantly, Gyllenhaal as French pointillist painter Georges Seurat and the kittenishly sweet Annaleigh Ashford as his model, lover and muse, Dot. They are well supported by a chamber orchestra under the sensitive baton of Chris Fenwick, so Sondheim’s plangent, soaring score sounds absolutely marvelous. If director Sarna Lapine’s budget staging reminds you that this version began as a concert, at least you can get lost in the music. And bravo for the “Chromolume” FX in the second act, much more artful and dazzling than in most revivals. Designers Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash dip scores of strobing, colored bulbs over the audience’s head, creating a pulsing, three-dimensional field of points – cleverly translating the first act’s painterly technique to modern technology. There aren’t many Sunday revivals where you leave humming the Chromolume.
As far as human effects, you will be suitably swept away by Gyllenhaal’s passionately acted, exquisitely articulated George, the most psychologically cohesive and sympathetic rendition I’ve witnessed live. (Mandy Patinkin on video will always remain the gold standard.) Comical and tender by turns, Ashford provides the flashes of light where Gyllenhaal turns inward to shadow. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. There's Brooks Ashmanskas’ über-camp mugging as a boorish American tourist in Act I and a jaded gallery owner in Act II. Robert Sean Leonard is no one’s idea of a crooner, but he acquits himself nicely as George’s rival Jules. Philip Boykin, conversely, brings his opera-level vocal chops to the misanthropic Boatman. Veteran trouper Penny Fuller turns in delicately devastating work as George’s tart, judgmental mother. And David Turner works wonders in the small but pungent roles of German servant Franz and modern-day technician Dennis.
Now 34 years old, the musical’s art-world satire still cuts, and its emotional climax still brings tears. As Broadway fans know, the show came in the wake of Merrily We Roll Along’s disastrous flop, and it began Sondheim’s late (and, arguably, most unguarded and daring) period, including the formal innovations of In the Woods, Assassins and Passion. For theater-geek children of the 1980s, the work is remembered fondly as a gateway show, the musical that touched head and heart and showed you what could be possible on a blank surface with mere imagination. Today, Sunday remains a masterpiece that affirms the painful, isolating joys of creation, and the need to learn new lessons. The 2008 Roundabout Theatre Company revival at Studio 54 was strong, but not as emotionally resonant as this one. Then again, I’d like to see another revival with stronger visual and storytelling elements, less bound by budgetary constraints. But anyway, I’m grateful I went. Like a densely plotted canvas, Sunday in the Park with George is always worth seeing, no matter where or how it’s hung.