Every once in a rare while, the theater rewards us with a kind of transcendent experience, a feeling that this, surely, will never happen again — at least not remotely in the same way.
My once-in-a-lifetime theory is being crushed — exquisitely, rapturously — right now as Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford step up alongside Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the treasured place where I keep memories of the original “Sunday in the Park With George.” They are that good.
This is not to say that anything in director Sarna Lapine’s production feels like a copy of the premiere that her uncle, author-director James Lapine, and Stephen Sondheim revealed with such indelible audacity in 1984. But the revival, dressed-up a bit from a dazzling semi-staged, three-night run at City Center Encores! in October, shares the delirious joyfulness, integrity and blissful musicality that no previous incarnation I’ve seen of the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork has approached.
It is no surprise that Gyllenhaal can act. He embodies the penetrating strangeness and charismatic intensity of the show’s two Georges — the obsessive, misunderstood late 19th century French painter Georges Seurat in the first act and, 100 years later, his great-great grandson, the disillusioned American multimedia artist who learns that “art isn’t easy.”
But the movie star also can sing. In two of musical theater’s most exacting roles, he brings a pungent lyric tenor, elegant taste and a purity of tone as precise as the points of color in Seurat’s vast pointillist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” which we watch him create. Oh, and he yaps both sides of a conversation between dogs.
Ashford is with him, dot for ultra-focused dot, as his mistress named Dot and, later, as his droll, aged grandmother. The Tony-winning actress has marvelous comic — and tragic — timing. As Sondheim mirrors Seurat’s points-of-light brush technique in staccato music, Dot dabs powder on her body while George dabs his paint.
The production, which inaugurates Broadway’s handsomely renovated Hudson Theatre, is less extravagant than others, but no less magical. Beowulf Boritt’s set keeps the Encores! onstage orchestra, hidden by a draped cloth onto which Tal Yarden’s projections recreate the evolution of the painting.
The rest of the cast is equally splendid, including Penny Fuller as George’s mother and Robert Sean Leonard as the established artist who disdains his innovation. Ultimately, this is nothing less than an unpretentious art-history lesson, a great bittersweet love story and a close-to-the-bone consideration of art’s toll on the human psyche. The show also has an inspirational message about the need to connect and to move on. For now, however, I’d rather stay right there.