Sunday, April 2, 2017

This Is One Sunday You Don't Wanna Let Go!

Jake Gyllenhaal chats with Seth about his heart chakra and Mandy Patinkin's thoughts on his Broadway performance in Sunday in the Park With George.
When the New York City Center Encores series announced that, as a special event, it would present Hollywood heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role of Stephen Sondheim's iconic musical Sunday in the Park With George the Big Question was: That's quite a coup, but can he sing? Sure, he had appeared on stage before and even in a musical but it was a smaller, novelty outing. The question remained: Does he have what it takes to carry a Big, Serious, Broadway Musical?
Well, Gyllenhaal & Co. are now on Broadway singing "Sunday" and the question's been answered. We'll get to that in a moment. But first, a bit of background.
Written by James Lapine with music and lyrics by Sondheim, Sunday in the Park With George has always seems a bit bifurcated. Like two mini-musicals, the first and second acts appeared to tell different stories. Part one examined the brief life of the tortured pointillist painter George Seurat and his effort to produce the iconic painting that gives the show its name. Part two looks into the modern, somewhat disjointed world of Seurat's presumed great-grandson (also named George and also an artist) who's exploring a 1980s sound and light form of experiential art. The problem isn't just the time gap between the two acts but the device itself. In the original (which we saw on Broadway in 1984) the jump from then to now seemed abrupt and somewhat gimmicky. Also, the music in the much shorter act two never seemed to match the more audacious first act.
This was in no way the fault of the two stars (Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as Dot) who brought both vocal heft and fine acting to their roles. In fact, they seemed so remarkably well-suited to their task that they set a very high bar for the future. No, the problem was that the dazzle of High Art at the start seemed to fizzle in the face of the contrived art (which was mostly left to our imagination) at the finish.
Still, the musical was a landmark work. It not only charted new ground and gave us some of Sondheim's most haunting music and lyrics but it set everyone to thinking about the nature of art itself and it's meaning in our lives, both then and now. Indeed, this daring original work won the Pulitizer Prize, an honor captured by fewer than 10 musicals.
The show remains enveloped with a tapestry of nuanced meaning and lingering irony that puts it right up there with Sondheim's Into The Woods as a sort of musical examination of timeless themes. And the songs (most notably Finishing The Hat, Putting It Together, Move On, Sunday, We Do Not Belong Together and Beautiful) are nothing less than unforgettable. Like the best of Sondheim, these songs never stoop to sentimentality. Though they still touch you deeply, above all, they make you think.
So, how does this new production surmount the leap from 1886 to 1984? Well, it does it in part with yet another device. But this time, it's a device that works. This time, we're treated to a dazzling dash of Broadway LED and laser special effects (with music) in the form of George's latest art installation, Chromolume #7.  What we see now at the Hudson Theatre probably wasn't possible in 1984 and, in its own way, it seems almost as inventive as Seurat's pioneering pointillism. Remember, pointillism foresaw the mosaic of modern photography, television and pixelated computer screens -- all "art forms" that required the viewer to assemble the picture in his or her mind. Now, the digital age has given us a sound and light attraction that combines human imagination and electronic derring-do. And, once again, you're engaged and challenged to "connect the [lighted] dots." In the second act, as the lights descend, ascend and dance all around you, you can almost hear the 1880s George singing: Dot, do, dot, dot . . . dot, dot, dot, dot . . . "
Now, the Big Question: Can Jake Gyllenhaal carry a tune? Indeed he can, thank you.
Not only does he sing beautifully but Gyllenhaal plays the role of George with such tortured intensity (particularly in the first act) that at times he seems to be overtaken by a kind of madness. It's more than an artist's obsessiveness. It's an all-consuming drive that finds itself immersed as much in the shear mechanics of art as the creative process itself. Stooped and disheveled, Gyllenhaal brings a darkness to the role that was not quite so evident in 1984. And, as Dot (Surat's love interest) Annaleigh Ashford is at times coquettish, stubborn, beguiling, childish, ornery and ultimately sensible. You'll see why Ashford is not only one of Broadway's most versatile stars but is also a Tony Award winner. Tony or not, she doesn't play the role as a diva. She gives us a Dot that seems a bit more accessible and somewhat more updated.
Directed by Sarna Lapine, this is a Sunday for the new century. But it's also a journey that remains true to the spirit and intent of the original. At it's core, it remains a study in the art of making art.
It was Picasso who said: "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls." Take a needed couple of hours away from the everyday grind and leave the dust of daily life behind as you enter the world of Sunday in the Park With George. It'll be good for your soul. We promise!

BTW: Broadway and Hollywood are two vastly different realms. Not all screen actors can make it on the stage, and visa-versa. It says something about Gyllenhaal that's he's been able to make the transformation seem seamless. Broadway demands a stronger presence, larger body movements and much more emoting. Jake manages not only to pull it off but to do it with appealing believability. Beyond all that, he really seems to enjoy every moment of it. Bravo!

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