A new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George opened last night at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre. It’s been 49 years since a show was produced there. And what a show this is.
A bare-bones revival, a touch more lavishly produced than it was this past July in its four-day run at City Center as part of the Encores! summer series, this production manages the impossible: with no scenery it still appears lavish. Ravishing, really. Beautifully cast and sung, under the direction of Sarna Lapine (the playwright’s niece), it honors his and Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration in new and exciting ways. Delving deep, Ms. Lapine has deconstructed and connected to the core principle of the piece — its humanity. The joy and angst of the creative process (and the sacrifices it sometimes incurs) is what lies at its heart. And this production is pitch perfect in mining everything that makes it one of the most important musicals of the 20th century.
Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre
And what does Sunday have to say in this burgeoning 21st century? For me, I found it more resonant than it was than in 1984 when I first saw it (a total of four times). My first time was at a preview before the second act’s crucial song, “Lesson #8” was put in. I sensed open hostility for the show and it’s no secret that preview audiences walked out on it. The Wall Street Journal “helpfully” suggested that the often maligned second act be cut entirely. Cutting that idea off, Sondheim said, “Without the second half, the show’s a stunt.”
With Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters giving what I once thought were definitive performances, I cried every time I saw it. But Tuesday night, while watching Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford reinterpret George and Dot, I was moved more than ever (and I’ve seen it in two other productions: the 2008 London import from the Menier Chocolate Factory and in L.A. with Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano). I enjoyed elements of both of those, but this Sunday is a horse of a different color. Particularly in these exceptional two leads. Jake Gyllenhaal is a revelation as a singer (we already know he has the acting chops to play George). His commitment is total; his concentration superb (an essential element when taking on both Georges). As for Annaleigh Ashford, I am hard pressed to think of a better actress-singer who can top her right now. Not only is her voice glorious, but her comedy timing is without peer. Add to that her confidence as a dramatic actor and you have the whole package. I’ve loved her in everything she’s ever done, but this is her at the pinnacle of her powers. Everything she’s ever learned is all in this performance.
Jake Gyllenhaal & Annaleigh Ashford as George and Dot
Last night, as the critics began to weigh in on line, I was distressed that even though I didn’t read one negative review, almost every one seemed to find a nit to pick. I’m not sure if it’s based on reverence for the original production, but the caveats felt unnecessary. Then this morning, I opened up my hard copy of the New York Times and read Ben Brantley’s take and my heart opened up. Not always the biggest fan, I felt like Brantley was really in the zone composing this review. It’s beautiful writing, passionate and dead on in expressing how personal an experience this musical can be if one is willing to take the journey. Which is why it bothers me when nitpicking overrides Sunday’s extraordinary achievements. That Sondheim and Lapine created a musical based on interpreting what was going on in a painting? Come on! For something a bit more articulate than that, here’s Brantley’s full review:
As the story goes, when the creative process began, it was Lapine who said to Sondheim, “You know there’s one character missing in all this. The artist.” And from this simple statement the trajectory of the show took hold. What sings to me about Sunday is the care it takes to get inside the head of an artist, baring down on what drives an artistic soul. And at what sacrifice? That’s what the whole show is about.
My affection for all things Sondheim began at a young age. I played Hero in a community theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when I was sixteen, but that was after I’d already seen the original productions of Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. He is indeed the master that the universe has proclaimed him, but more importantly, he is still with us and at eighty-six, writing and composing. He is currently at work on a musical with the playwright David Ives, based on two Luis Buñuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. It is scheduled for a production at the Public Theatre sometime later this year.