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BWW Review: Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal Star In A Glorious SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

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First... Let's talk about the theatre.

The Hudson Theatre, built in 1903 and not used as a legit playhouse since George Panetta's comedy MIKE DOWNSTAIRS ended its four-performance run in 1968, has been restored to sumptuous and ornate beauty befitting old-school Broadway grandeur.

And compared with the tight squeeze many experience in most Broadway houses, requiring more intimacy with one's neighbor than may be desired, the extra wide seats are as comfy as airline business class.

BWW Review: Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal Star In A Glorious SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Appropriately, the show that reopens the Hudson is a gem. Last October's City Center benefit concert staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George, has been expanded and recast a bit, but, as directed by Sarna Lapine (niece of the bookwriter, who directed the original production), its comparatively modest production values allow more focus on the excellent acting performances and the superior quality of the incisive words and emotion-draining music. This is one of the American musical theatre's finest literary creations.

Inspired by Georges Seurat's pointillism masterwork "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the authors explore how "the art of making art" can be less about applying paint to a canvas as it is about applying a signature to a check.

The first act envisions identities for the anonymous figures painted by the artist, with an emphasis on his rocky relationship with his latest lover, Dot. Though regarded today as an innovator for the illusions he created with color and light, Seurat died in 1891 at age 31 with his accomplishments unrecognized by his contemporaries. Projections by Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash set locations and show us his painting in various stages of development.

Seurat is presented as an antisocial genius who challenged the art world with a new form of abstraction that few could understand. In the second act, the authors create a 1980s art sensation named George, a fellow who questions his grandmother Marie's claim that she was the daughter of Seurat and Dot.

George considers himself more of an inventor, having created a series of electronic "sculptures" he calls chromolums (after a Seurat painting technique), which work their own magic with color and light. In this production, designers Beowulf Boritt (set) Ken Billington (lights) and Kai Harada (sound) envision his latest chromolum as dozens of lights hanging above the theatre's front rows that perform a ballet of motion, music and hues.

While Seurat's signature moment in the musical is the song "Finishing The Hat," where, alone in his studio, he sings of his obsession with creating at the expense of developing human relationships, the 20th Century George's big musical scene is "Putting In Together," where he plunges into a cocktail reception populated by curators, funders and journalists, glad-handing and chatting his way to support for his next chromolum.

Concert productions are typically mounted with limited rehearsal time, often with the actors carrying their scripts, so naturally, this staging's two stars are returning with deeper performances. Jake Gyllenhaal's formerly soft take on Seurat has developed more desperate dimensions. Aided by a much stronger singing voice, he gets the point across that Seurat sees his own self-worth in his creations, and that well-intentioned criticisms and distractions from his efforts are seen as wounding affronts.

His second act George, though masterful at laying on the charm, is layered with hints of self-loathing, knowing that it's too-often his social skills, not his (perhaps limited) talent, that make him a darling of exhibitors. In these days when public funding for the arts is in serious danger, artists like George, scrambling for private funding, may be the ones who determine our generation's creative legacy.

BWW Review: Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal Star In A Glorious SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
The company (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

With her performances in KINKY BOOTS, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and SYLVIA, Annaleigh Ashford has established herself as one of Broadway's leading comic actors, combining a pin-point delivery with realistic pathos. Her Dot was certainly funny in concert, as she struggled with having to keep still while modeling for Seurat and fantasized about the glamour of being follies girl, but what's more evident now is Dot's struggle with the limitations of being "the girl" on a successful man's arm. Her affection for Seurat is, at first, expressed as a love for the prestige of being the romantic partner of a serious artist. But when she leaves the sullen recluse for the company of the popular and gregarious baker, Louie, she gets the prize she wants, but longs for the unattainable love from the painter. Ashford's singing of "We Do Not Belong Together" is a heartbreaking realization that Seurat will never be the man she envisioned him as.

In the second act, Ashford puts on a pronounced southern drawl as the wheelchair-using Marie. Though the elderly character's fading memory is sometimes played for gentle laughs, her Marie is a woman with a strong sense of self, suggesting that she was taught by Dot not to depend on a man to establish her identity for her.

The strong supporting company, most doubling as 19th Century Parisians and as members of the 1980s art scene, includes notables such as Penny Fuller, Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, Erin Davie, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Ruthie Ann Miles and Ashley Park. When the full ensemble combines with the thirteen members of music director Chris Fenwick's on-stage orchestra for the gorgeous harmonies of the act one finale, showing the individual characters taking their places to recreate Seurat's finished effort, it's a breathtaking moment in a sparkling production of an important musical.

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From This Author Michael Dale