Sarna Lapine’s “Sunday In The Park With George” At The Hudson Theatre, Saturday, February 25th, 2017, Reviewed
With the exception of “Putting It Together,” Stephen Sondheim’s glorious score for “Sunday In The Park With George” is not precisely his most memorable music. It isn’t, say, “Company”. And while I myself didn’t see the original production of the musical as featured Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, those who did see it claim the second act was a botch job. However, I’ve listened to the original cast album many times and it is just about perfect and coming to the revival at the Hudson Theatre, directed by book author James Lapine’s niece Sarna Lapine, musically there doesn’t seem much to add to the proceedings. But there are other things.
It is the (somewhat fictionalized) story of the French post-Impressionist painter who invented pointillism, painting as tiny dots that, when you move away from the painting, creates different colors , to the eye. Georges Seurat’s masterwork, a ten foot wide painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” created over two years, is the center of the Sunday, it was completed in 1884 when Georges was 24 years of age. He would die seven years later. Lapine doesn’t use this as any form of jumping off point for a story, it is the story itself. It is not merely the where and when and why but the what and if and it is a reduction and expansion of what art can and can not do. Lapine tells (actually, quite often makes up) the story of George (he drops the s) and his affair with a model, with whom he has a baby girl (in the musical, in real life the story is similar but even more tragic), the baby leaves with her mother to the US, after George can not ask her to stay. Against the essential but lightly colored in love story are the various people who populate the painting and who we meet.
Seurat, performed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s exceptional eyebrows, is the apex of a triangle with his love Dot at one end and his art at the other. To maintain the level of intensity he needs, Seurat is unwilling to give Dot the normal love and affection she needs. When she asks whether he loves her, he shows his paintings of her as proof of his affection but words, tenderness, even a glance at his newborn daughter is too much distraction. Jake is no Mandy but he sings his role fine. At first I was uncertain about Annaleigh Ashford as Dot, her comedic gifts seemed a little bit wrong, it was all too similar to Lauren in “Kinky Boots”. But when she needs to, during “We Do Not Belong Together,” Ashford is up to the task and then some.
The first Act is literally Sunday in the park with George as it returns again and again, over a period of two years, to him: to the color, the light, the characters he is painting from all walks of life. It is a true living tableaux as it expresses these people backstories and makes this one captured moment in time come to life for us. All the acting and all the singing is superb but it is an especially a treat to see Robert Sean Leonard, who I adored in the Lincoln Center production of “Arcadia” in the 90s, as Georges’ friend Jules. The act is mesmerizing as it places its actors together and then captures them in the same pose as the painting. This production began life as part of City Center’s in concert “Encore” series and it remains a minimalistic vision, the entire orchestra is behind a silk screen projecting Seurat paintings for much of the show, and the stage design is bare thread to a fault. We know why, and not just its origins at Encores but also its place as a replacement for a different show also meant to reopen the refurbished Hudson Theatre (quite why Broadway Theatres believe that 18th century seats make sense in the 21st century, you’ll have to take up with them, but really why do movie theatres have better seats than $300 ones? Hell, MSG has better seats). With movie star Jake available for both, the move from Encores to Broadway (in the footsteps of “Chicago” -which also began at Encores and is also somewhat minimal) was complete and that first act is proof that hydraulic pumps and fairy dust is pleasant but not necessary. Lapine and Sondheim are putting together a moral imperative concept: if art needs concentration and concentration is unavailable in the midst of the messiness of life, better to retreat from life, to refuse to look at even your baby daughter once than to be distracted from your art. Art is immortality.
Art is immortality and so are children. The second act opens 100 years after the first act. Seurat’s Great Grandson George (also performed by Jake) , an artist himself, is at the Chicago opening for his light installation called a chromolume -it looks a little like the light show Red Hot Chili Peppers put on last month at their MSG concert. The characters in the painting are now the benefactors and media at the opening of the grandson’s exhibition. Dot’s daughter (the baby Seurat ignored) is 98 years old and in a wheelchair. And the act acts as a refuting of the first acts claim about art. Yes, the art remains, but the art remains stuck in place and time, but his ancestors art lives on in the present, in the now. This is wedded to a musical intensity and story that slips the bounds of theatre, The entire evening is a device to study what it is. It is about what it is. It is about the eye and the image, On a personal level the first act is the tiny dots of paint, and the second act is the way the dots merge. George, who knows how distance effects his painting, can’t see how distance effects his far future.
Last year I finished a huge novel, 150,000 words and more, but didn’t show it to anyone (much the same way I am writing this firm in the knowledge no one will read it), I am not claiming artistry in common with Seurat, but obsessiveness. The creation in a vacuum that never goes out. The novel is the life, the painting is the life. but it isn’t the only life. Not unlike “Passion”, which he also made with James Lapine, “Sunday In The Park With George” is a gorgeous obsession with art and its aftermath.