On Friday evening, my girlfriend and I had the privilege of seeing Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre near Times square. The show, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George is a multi-arc musical chronicling the creation of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Originally opening in 1984, with Mandy Patankin and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles of Georges Seurat and his model, Dot; it was Sondheim’s first production since the infamous Merrily We Roll Along. Despite some complaints over the pacing and structure of the play, the show was fairly well received and was generally considered a return to form for the legendary composer.
The show is broken up into two parts: the first begins with Seurat in 1884 as he obsesses over getting the famous painting just right, creating friction with just about everyone he knows, most notably his model / lover Dot, whom he continually distances with his obsessive and cold demeanor. Each subject of the painting is given its own subplot, though none are as compelling as the main tension between Georges and Dot.
The second half fast forwards to 1984, when Georges’ great-grandson, George, struggling with his own ability to forge connections, as well as the difficulty of living up to his great-grandfather’s legacy. Helping him along is his grandmother, Marie, who is later revealed to be [SPOILER ALERT] the daughter of George and Dot. The second half focuses on George coming to term with the shadow of his family legacy and learning to accept and appreciate his own gifts.
While not as accessible as some of Sondheim’s other productions, Sunday in the Park with George is still a fascinating look at the mindset of an artist when in the throes of creativity, how it drives him to and away from what matters most.
Gyllenhaal gives a commanding performance as Seurat, holding his own against previous stars such as Mandy Patinkin and Philip Quast. He imbues Seurat with equal amounts of warmth and distance, allowing the audience to feel frustrated and proud at key moments, perfectly nailing the complexity of the character. Vocally, his voice is light and warm, and he handled the songs with ease.
Annaleigh Ashford was a formidable female lead, playing perfectly off Gyllenhaal and portraying both Dot and Marie with warmth and humor, providing a great deal of sympathy for both characters. Her nuanced portrayal is maybe the best part of the whole production.
Song-wise, the two high points are its emotional centerpieces, the triumphant “Finishing the Hat” (one of the best testaments to the power of art ever written) and the aching “Move On,” sung by George and a vision of Dot as he finally learns to let go of his burden.
Its odd structure and abundance of side characters can make it occasionally hard to follow, but Sunday in the Park with George is undoubtedly worth seeing thanks to its commanding leads and great soundtrack. The show runs until April 23rd.