Review: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ – Encores Great American Musicals at City Center

By Jonathan Spira on 25 October 2016
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When “Sunday in the Park with George” premiered off Broadway in 1983, it shook things up. Theatergoers were treated to a profoundly moving work of art as much as to a Broadway musical. But over 30 years later, it’s clear that, if “Sunday” wasn’t a paradigm shift, it did somewhat break the mold.

In the first act, we meet George, ostensibly Georges Seurat, the French post-Impressionist painter played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal in the role originated by Mandy Patinkin. Seurat, who spent two years painting «Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte» or, in English, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” altered the world of art with his painting much in the manner that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine changed the Broadway world with this show.

Sunday after Sunday, George sits in the park making preliminary drawings and sketches of the various people who visit the bucolic park. The mammoth work (it’s 7’x10’ or 2×3 meters and hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago) captures bourgeois Parisians relaxing on their day off. Alors, George, we find out, can only connect with people by capturing their likenesses on canvas.

Details are important in this show. Seurat applied the science of optics to his art, using a technique originally called divisionism, but now referred to as pointillism, in which tiny dots of color in a uniform size are unified optically by the human brain when viewed from a distance, but appear completely abstract when examined up close.

In the first act, George is so obsessed with his work that he cannot put his brush down and connect on a human level with the aptly named Dot, his lover and model, played passionately by Annaleigh Ashford in the role originated by Bernadette Peters. In what I consider the show’s most moving song, “Finishing the Hat,” George explains how he watches “the rest of the world from a window” while he obsessively creates art.

He paints and paints and finally completes “La Grande Jatte” before the audience as the entire cast – whom we have met individually throughout the first act –moves into positions that mimic the 1884 painting. The effect is almost magical as they sing the closing song of the first act, “Sunday,” giving the audience the impression that it’s the painting that is singing.

In the haunting and contemplative second act, which goes in an entirely different direction, George’s great-grandson, an artist in his own right, is frustrated that the art he is creating is a variation on the same theme that brought first brought him fame.

Here Ashford is transformed into Dot’s daughter, the 98-year-old, wheelchair-bound Marie. It’s one hundred years later and she is joining her grandson on stage at the unveiling of his latest electronic art installation, Chromolume No. 7, a modern-day interpretation of Seurat’s famous painting.

Click here to continue to Page 2A Trip to Paris

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