Our final Broadway outing this New York trip was to a revival of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sunday in the Park with George. Richard and I are both huge Sondheim fans and had never seen a live production of this work--though I recall watching on PBS at some point in high school a video taping of the original Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. This time it's movie star Jake Gyllenhaal pulling in the crowds as Georges Seurat, struggling in the first act to complete his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But it is Annaleigh Ashford, as Georges' aggrieved muse Dot (and later, in the second act, her daughter Marie, grandmother to Gyllenhaal's American postmodern sculptor George, struggling with his latest chromolume commission) who is the real standout here. Ashford has a crystalline soprano and superb comic timing; she commands the stage with her presence, even when disguised in a grey wig and seated in a wheel chair. And while she has perfect pitch and would have no trouble making any of her numbers soar, she also knows that her singing must serve the work's larger context and not her own vanity. Thus, for example, she delivers the poignant Act 2 song "Children and Art" as the elderly character she's playing, not as the young performer inhabiting the role--and, in the process, she made me understand that in this song I have heard countless times before she is actually trying to help her grandson rediscover his artistic passion.
Not that Gyllenhaal isn't entirely credible as a singer: while he sometimes struggles to hit (and hold) the higher notes, he has great facility with Sondheim's complex time signatures and rhymes; his "Putting It Together," which like many of Sondheim's faster numbers (Mrs. Lovett's meat pies song from Sweeney Todd comes to mind) provides very little breathing room, was a standout. It also reminded me of what a savage--and prescient--critique of the global art market is this musical. Gyllenhaal's unique take on the dogs Georges is meant to voice in "The Day Off" also demonstrated that he was not afraid to make himself look ridiculous if it served the staging.
But, really, it is the work itself that most shines in this production. Director Sarna Lapine, niece of book writer and original director James Lapine, wisely understands that in terms of its musical and narrative structure Sunday in the Park is, like the Seurat painting that inspired it, perfectly composed. As such she does not strive for unnecessary dramaturgical or scenographic embellishment. Her stripped down and spare staging--while not above the occasional bit of razzle dazzle, as with the unveiling of George's chromolume in Act 2--allows the music to provide most of the evening's colour and light.