Thursday, February 23, 2017

Art Isn't Easy, as Middling "Sunday" Revival Proves

Review: Sunday in the Park with George

Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in the Broadway transfer of City Center's Sunday in the Park with George.

Confession time: Despite Stephen Sondheim being arguably the most accomplished composer/lyricist the musical theatre has ever seen, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George has never been a favorite of mine. I find the show, like its protagonist, to be distant and emotionally inaccessible, preventing me from forming much of a connection with it. In a sense, that is a compliment, as it proves Sondheim and librettist James Lapine were entirely successful at presenting their complicated lead as others view him, but it also an obstacle productions of the show must overcome to allow audiences to experience the full weight of what it has to say. And unfortunately, this latest Broadway revival fails to fully clear that hurdle, resulting in a somewhat cold, clinical examination of art and relationships when a more deeply felt one would be preferable.

For those unfamiliar with Sunday, the first act follows post-Impressionist painter George Seurat as he creates his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The largely fictional narrative imagines lives and backstories for the figures observed in the painting, and posits that the most prominent figure in the work is George's muse and lover (cheekily named Dot). The second act jumps forward 100 years and checks in on George's great grandson - also named George - as he struggles to push the boundaries of art in the modern world, just like his namesake.

The show, like the painting which inspired it, is a series of specific and seemingly unrelated vignettes that when taken as a whole forms something new, a carefully drawn character study as well as a mediation on the often misunderstood existence of artists and other creative types. Essays have been written about Sondheim's use of short, staccato phrases and underscoring to imitate the precise, driven brushstrokes Seurat used to paint A Sunday Afternoon, and the music does hold a great deal of beauty and feeling for those who can adjust to its unconventional form. And Lapine's seemingly sparse libretto contains a great many interesting ideas and surprisingly tight plotting, although it is not the crystal clear juggling of multiple storylines he created for his next collaboration with Sondheim, the more accessible and perennially popular Into the Woods. While Sunday in the Park may not be my favorite Sondheim, it is undeniably a well-made musical.

So if the problem isn't the script, then what keeps this production (which began life as a one night only gala concert for the esteemed City Center Encores series) from reaching the artistic heights it so clearly aspires to? The unfortunately blunt answer is casting, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford failing to provoke much emotion either separately or together. While any George and Dot would struggle to step out of the long shadow cast by the show's original leads, the incomparable Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, Gyllenhaal and Ashford display a surprising lack of chemistry that greatly hinders this production.

Ashford in particular feels miscast, her Dot lacking the emotional transparency and zest for life to properly counter George's introverted nature. For an actress who has repeatedly shown a gift for comedy, Ashford lands very few of Dot's copious jokes, and comes across as more of a petulant child than an ignored woman who demands our sympathy. It also must be mentioned that Sondheim's admittedly difficult score is a poor fit for Ashford's voice, which here lacks power and sometimes even coherence (several lyrics sound garbled). This is surprising for a production that began life as a concert, but could be forgiven if Ashford's acting was more interesting; despite several emotionally complex, musically exciting solos, you don't ever feel like you have a good handle on what's going on inside Ashford's head. In the actress' defense, she does an excellent job of playing the aging Marie (Dot's daughter and George #2's grandmother) in the second act, and her "Children and Art" is one of the few genuinely moving moments in the show.

Gyllenhaal fares better as George, where a generally impenetrable countenance is more appropriate to the character. For an actor without much musical background he is a surprisingly confident singer, although the upper notes of George's songs do seem to be a strain. And it must be noted that Gyllenhaal fails to find the full depth of emotion in the score's most famous tune, "Finishing the Hat." In the show the song functions as the one real opportunity for Seurat to show the complex well of feelings boiling just beneath the surface, and in the hands of the right actor can be a revelatory showstopper. Gyllenhaal's rendition doesn't really rise above competent, and neither does his climatic duet with Ashford near the show's end, "Move On."

Not all blame can be laid on the feet of the actors, however. Director Sarna Lapine (the niece of librettist and original director James Lapine) doesn't do anything particularly interesting with the staging, and seems at different points oddly beholden or suspicious of the original production. She retains the idea of Dot "stepping out" of her dress during the title song - here accomplished by Ashford removing an overlay in an unnecessary bit of stage business - but seems incredibly hesitant to actually recreate the painting for the final tableau of Act I, something essentially demanded by the text. Lapine also hasn't done much to shape her actors' performances, contributing to the disconnected feel of the entire evening.

There are a great many past Tony winners and nominees rounding out the supporting cast, none of whom are given a whole lot to do in what is essentially a two-character drama with interludes. Both the performers and the director seem much more comfortable with the show's second act, but without the foundation laid by the first half many of the second's emotional beats ring false. Ultimately, this production of Sunday in the Park with George registers as more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one, something that properly cultured people "should" see but won't necessarily enjoy. To paraphrase one of the show's lyrics, there are worse things than spending time with this George, but there are also significantly more entertaining options as well.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Searching for a Connection, One Post at a Time

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Ben Platt (center) and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

The most satisfying aspect of the Broadway transfer of Dear Evan Hansen, the fantastic new musical which premiered Off-Broadway at Second Stage last spring, is seeing just how well the show has expanded to fill its new theatrical home. Very little has changed from its initial incarnation, but the cast and creative team have deepened and sharpened the show's emotional center to create the most satisfying musical of the current Broadway season. In a theatrical landscape bursting with movie adaptations and big-budget musical revivals, the wholly original Hansen is a breath of fresh air, showcasing a contemporary edge that supports rather than fights its universal appeal.

Loosely inspired by real life events at co-composer/lyricist Benj Pasek's high school, the show opens with the perpetually awkward and lonely Evan Hansen starting his senior year with a broken arm and serious social anxiety. Every day Evan writes himself a letter designed to be encouraging, and through a series of mishaps one of these notes ends up in the possession of troubled fellow student Connor Murphy right before Connor takes his own life. With Evan as the last seeming link to their now dead son, Connor's parents and his younger sister (who Evan has long had a crush on) reach out to Evan in an attempt to ease their grief by learning more about the boys' relationship. And when word of this supposed friendship gets out to the school at large, Evan becomes one of the most talked about - and oddly popular - kids at school.

Much has been made of the contemporary trappings of Evan Hansen; social media, emails, and a host of other methods of electronic communication feature prominently in the plot. But what makes the show truly moving is how the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul along with bookwriter Steven Levenson so clearly delineate the ways in which these new technologies all exist to fulfill the very basic, primal need of human beings to feel like they belong. At its heart, Evan Hansen is a show about a group of individuals longing for human connection and the lengths they'll go through to get it. The show also offers a compelling, multifaceted look at how different individuals process grief, and the struggles of parenting teenagers in any decade (the show telling opens with a brief song for Evan and Connor's mothers entitled "Anybody Have a Map?").

Pasek and Paul's score effortlessly captures the infinite complexity of these issues, exploring them with intelligence and depth without offering any easy answers. Their soaring melodies and evocative harmonies cut to the very core of these characters, and yet are unabashedly gorgeous in their own right. The duo was Tony-nominated for their Broadway debut on A Christmas Story, but the treasure trove of songs they've written for Evan Hansen far surpasses their work on that charming holiday adaptation. Pasek and Paul assert their mastery of the musical theatre form again and again, be it on Evan's trasnportive "For Forever," the haunting "Requiem" for the Murphy family, or the buoyant and deliciously droll "Sincerely, Me." The pair also wisely knows when to let their songwriting abilities take a backseat to Levenson's excellent scene work, which expertly moves the plot along without making the sacrifices in depth that too many musical bookwriters make in the name of efficiency.

Everything is directed with unerring precision by Michael Greif, the man behind the artistically similar Next to Normal and If/Then. Greif's ability to balance the show's humor and pathos is remarkable, and he knows exactly how long to let a particular moment or scene breathe before seamlessly transitioning to the next story beat. If there is one critique to be had, it's that Greif hasn't quite brought his design team up to his level, particularly the lighting. Japhy Weideman's stylized lighting design helps to emphasize the cold and sometimes isolating nature of internet communication, but his overuse of harsh downlight often leaves actors' faces partially obscured and difficult to read, particularly from the mezzanine.

Yet even when not fully lit, the cast of Evan Hansen is simply sublime from top to bottom. The clear standout is young Ben Platt as the title character, delivering one of the most fascinating and wonderfully textured leading man performances of the season. While Platt's collection of physical tics and awkward mannerisms felt a tad forced Off-Broadway, here they are entirely believable and instantly establish Evan as a lovable loser who can't quite figure out this whole high school thing. Platt's soaring voice is a perfectly matched to a role clearly created around his specific set of talents, and his is the most exciting star turn on Broadway since Cynthia Erivo burst onto the scene in last season's The Color Purple (like Erivo, I expect Platt to do very well come awards season). Platt proves to be an exceedingly accomplished actor for someone so young, effortlessly carrying the evening and making you root for Evan even while cringing at some of the character's more questionable decisions.

Platt is matched scene for scene by the rest of his cast mates, who are universally excellent. Special praise must go to Jennifer Laura Thompson and Rachel Bay Jones as Cynthia Murphy and Heidi Hansen respectively. Both play mothers struggling against obstacles they are woefully unprepared for, and each actress shares their character's vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Your heart will break repeatedly for Thompson as she desperately clings to any scrap of a connection with her departed son Connor, displaying a grief which is heartrendingly real while also allowing us to see the character's lighter side. And Jones is sensational as Evan's mom Heidi, trying her best to raise her son on her own but clearly overwhelmed by her circumstances. Only the most hardened of hearts will remain unmoved by her rendition of "So Big/So Small" near the show's conclusion, a remarkable insightful encapsulation a mother's love and heartache while trying to figure out where their lives go next.

It is rare for a musical to burst onto the scene as fully formed as Dear Evan Hansen, especially one not based on any kind of source material. The contemporary trappings provide a new context for a universal story about longing and acceptance, the struggles we all face in navigating the challenges of day to day life. Superbly written and expertly performed, this is an enthralling musical for the ages, one which deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.