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.


  1. Sounds like the producers made the right choice in withdrawing this show from consideration at the Tonys

    1. I have to say, the thought crossed my mind.

    2. I heard the main reason for that was that the didn't want to risk the show losing money by giving away the necessary free tickets to Tony voters.

  2. There's still a lot of controversy over the fact that the original production in the 80s lost a lot of key Tony races like Best Musical and Best Score to La Cage Aux Falles. Did La Cage Aux Falles rightfully deserve to win?

    1. Having not seen the original La Cage, I can't really say. Sunday in the Park has obviously gone on to be the more "important" work, but I would imagine the original La Cage was probably more entertaining and therefore inspired more people to vote for it. In it's own way, La Cage was actually really boundary pushing for its time, featuring drag queens and an older gay couple at its center, so I don't think it was a case of just opting for a crowd pleaser over a more intellectual show.