Instead of props or set pieces, it is the characters’ thoughts, ambitions, and harmonies that fill the stage in “Sunday in the Park with George” at the Hudson Theatre. This revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1983 musical about the life and legacy of post-impressionist George Seurat is actor-driven and glimmers with a few key moments of magic.
For a show grounded in a painting, the minimalist set is mostly disappointing. Behind a nearly bare stage platform, various Seurat works are projected onto a scrim to form the backdrop. The projected dappled light can’t quite capture the luminous, stately quality of Seurat’s work—it occasionally makes the set feel like a slideshow.
Instead, Sondheim’s sparkling score breathes life into the empty stage. The set shifts the focus to the actors and their music. Just as with impressionism, which uses small brush strokes to capture light, your mind must fill in the details.
The first act weaves through the stories of George, his mistress, and the characters in the painting “A Sunday on the Grande Jatte,” and the second act chronicles his impact on characters 100 years later.
Annaleigh Ashford, playing Dot, George’s mistress and muse, and later George’s daughter, carries both acts. In the opening song, “Sunday in the Park with George,” she takes on the challenge of belting in scathing tones while standing statue-still in order to model for George. Ashford’s Dot wears her sultriness as a consciously ironic outer layer: in her mind, she is so much more than a mistress, but she is physically and metaphorically not allowed to break free from her feminine pose.
The role of George is movie star Jake Gyllenhaal’s first singing role. He is at his most captivating when showing the frustrated side of the artist. His eyes take on a manic glint while he frantically paints and sings in “Color and Light,” and he delightfully lets loose when pretending to be the dogs he is sketching in “The Day Off.”
Gyllenhaal portrays George as so focused on art that he lacks chemistry with people. Unfortunately, he treats even Dot with an aloofness and impatient tone that makes their love story unconvincing.
The stories about the gossiping people George paints in the park are also hard to feel invested in. These park scenes, though they do offer social commentary about interactions between social classes, are played mostly for laughs but are only slightly amusing. And the actress Ruthie Ann Miles, who won a Tony for her role in “The King and I,” has wasted her talents on the small roles of Frieda and Betty. The squabbles, flirtations, and complaints depicted are brief and trivial—only the way George intently observes and paints them gives them importance.
As a result, the one gripping plotline is George’s artistic process. Gyllenhaal’s agitation seems to swirl around the stage. George is the only character not putting on affectations or judging people; he observes closely and paints everyone. Still, his work is critically derided and people call him crazy. Where George finds light, all the other characters find things to scorn.
The first act culminates in the gorgeous song “Sunday,” which contains the iconic moment when each character steps into his or her place to complete the painting.
Though the moment lacks the visual magnificence of previous productions, the song’s chilling harmonies do the trick. The petty park fights of the first act seem so unimportant when compared to the goal of finding harmony in an image. Just as dots of color coalesce into light in George’s paintings, disparate people come together in a composition that will outlive them, and their previously distinct voices lose all affectation to swell in unison.
In the second act, Gyllenhaal plays George Seurat’s great grandson, also a critically ridiculed artist named George. (Like other plot points, this aspect is fictional: Seurat’s children died in infancy.)
George has produced a sculpture he calls a “Chromolume.” This production represents it as a showily breathtaking light installation that descends from the ceiling of the Hudson Theatre and flashes above the audience.
This time, Gyllenhaal’s character is concerned about financing and publicity rather than color and light. Gyllenhaal brings back his hypnotizingly frenzied thought processes. Ashford now plays his grandmother, Seurat’s daughter, whose deep love for the faceless figures in “A Sunday on the Grande Jatte” seems at first silly and then inspiring. By pointing out emotional connections in the painting, she convinces George to ground his thoughts back in the meaning of his art.
The modern George’s work has clear roots in Seurat’s pointillism, as both are composed of dots of light. The juxtaposition of these two innovative yet struggling artists reminds us that only time will tell how artists are remembered.
This production of “Sunday in the Park with George” is a love letter to hopeful artistic visions. If we could all try to observe each other with George’s eye for beauty, perhaps our world would become a little less like the park and more like the painting.