Who knew? Jake Gyllenhaal can be brooding (Brokeback Mountain), intense (Nightcrawler, Zodiac) and weird (Enemy). But who knew he could out-Mandy Patinkin Mandy Patinkin? Yet that’s exactly what he does in the outstanding concert version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday In The Park With George. The last of its too-brief run of performances is tonight; slated as a fundraiser for New York City Center’s invaluable concert series “Encores!,” tickets for the three-day run quickly became hotter than Hamilton when the production was announced. It not only doesn’t disappoint, it makes the brief stand seem shocking in light not only of the star’s bravura turn but also in the total home run of a production.
That Gyllenhaal can sing is not the surprise; he previously headlined an Encores! revival of the lovably goofy Little Shop Of Horrors. But Sunday In The Park is of another order entirely. The 1984 musical marked the beginning of Sondheim’s collaboration with writer and director Lapine (they would go on to create Into The Woods and Passion) and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A legendary cast — headlined by Patinkin as the pointillist painter George Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his lover, model and muse Dot — told the story of an artist whose devotion to his calling leaves others cold or unwilling to enter his world. And in it, many saw Sondheim commenting, with a score that includes some of the most beautiful theater music ever written, on his own critics, who often have been divided about his place in the Broadway pantheon. (The show was swept at the 1984 Tony Awards by La Cage Aux Folles, whose composer-lyricist Jerry Herman had the good taste to exclaim, on winning, that the awards validated “the simple, hummable show tune,” a snark aimed directly at Sondheim.)
Sunday In The Park hardly needs defenders — not with Barbra Streisand popularizing the brilliant “art isn’t easy” anthem “Putting It Together” on her first Broadway album, and the near-standard status of such showstoppers as George’s “Finishing The Hat” and the exquisite “Children And Art” and “Move On.” Moreover, a superb 2008 Broadway revival demonstrated that Patinkin and Peters, memorable as they were, didn’t own the roles.
That continues with this concert, in which Gyllenhaal is paired with the equally pitch-perfect Annaleigh Ashford, a Tony winner for You Can’t Take It With You and one of the original reasons to see the musical Kinky Boots. They’re unlike any of their distinguished predecessors — except in the matter that counts, which is giving flight to an astonishing score that brings musical form to Seurat’s system of applying dots of pure color to a canvas and allowing the eye to create beauty of light, form and harmony.
One of the key strengths of this minimal version is to accent the book as well. With its two acts separated by the century between Seurat’s death at 31 in 1891 and the contemporary setting of Act II, there was some criticism of the show feeling like two one-acts awkwardly stuck together. Here more than ever, the unity of Lapine’s book gets its due as the pieces, sonic, visual and most importantly emotional, fall into place across both acts.
Staged by Sarna Lapine (the author’s niece and an accomplished director), the show was equally well-cast with Phylicia Rashad as George’s impassive mother; Zachary Levi and Carmen Cusack as his rival, Jules, and his wife; and Gabriel Ebert and Ruthie Ann Miles as their lusty servants. Set designer Beowulf Boritt and projection specialist Wendall K. Harrington ingeniously evoke both the painting central to the show — Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on The Island Of La Grande Jatte” — and Tony Straiges’ settings for the original production at Playwrights Horizons and Broadway.
Ashford’s comedic skills are reined in ever so slightly, just enough to infuse both Dot and the elderly Marie of Act II with a soupçon of sauciness, and she is in wonderful voice. But the stunner is Gyllenhaal, who brings deep warmth and great passion to the role — along with a sizable wallop when needed. If it’s unlikely that his film schedule would allow a lengthier run, that’s all the sadder, because this was a performance for the ages.