CD Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (2017 Broadway Cast Recording)

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by Tony Frankel on December 11, 2017



Although a hit, the 2017 revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George had a strictly limited run, christening the newly refurbished Hudson Theatre, a 1903 playhouse that hadn’t operated as a Broadway venue in nearly 50 years. Originally conceived as a benefit for City Center Encores (produced by composer Jeanine Tesori), the concert staged reading, directed by Lapine’s niece Sarna, proved popular — and inexpensive — enough to bring to Broadway. The big draw was movie actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who had a few stints on Broadway up until then, and only one musical Off Broadway: a two-night gig as Seymour in a concert version of Little Shop of Horrors.

The 10-week run of Sunday was seen by a privileged few, but now you can discover why Gyllenhaal was so widely hailed: the 2-CD set, complete with lyrics and notes by original writer/director Lapine, is here, and he truly gets it right. But more important, the CD elucidates Sondheim’s genius in universalizing through art the demanding difficulty of creation and the price one pays for his creation.

This monumental work — which like a fine wine only gets better with time — is a musical fable based on the short life of pointillist painter Georges Seurat and his magnum opus A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The flawless self-contained first act is the imagined creation of the monumental 1884 work (which resides at the Art Institute of Chicago). Since Seurat is a man who keeps his life under control via sketch pad and canvas, Gyllenhaal’s choice to internalize his performance (you’ll get no grandstanding here) actually pulls us in until he sings “The Dog Song” — which has the painter furiously sketching while playing at being two canines: It’s at this moment that any comparison to the original cast recording is moot: In both chest voice and falsetto, Gyllenhaal is fantastic, funny and exciting.

But just as wonderful is the quiet intensity and humanity he brings to  “Finishing the Hat,” which captures the fanaticism and obsessive desire that keeps him disconnected from other, more meaningful relationships, especially with both his mother (the tough but melancholic Penny Fuller in “Beautiful”) and his lover Dot, played by Annaleigh Ashford.

Ashford may take some getting used to. I just assumed, having seen her completely take on the role of a wild English girl in Kinky Boots, that this would be a special interpretation, equaling Bernadette Peters extraordinary emotionality. Instead, Ashford is reserved, lacking radiance and wit (on the CD anyway — by all accounts she was luminous on stage). She also deeply internalizes here. We get Dot’s sharp intelligence and keen observation, her warmth and humanity, but Ashford’s voice, as lovely as it is, is lacking distinction (she has a Southern drawl as George’s grandmother Marie in Act Two). She also does those small vocal scoops that Pop brought to Broadway, and it diminishes her authority. That said, the Tony-winner is no slouch and she brings beauty and heartache to the life-affirming duet “Move On” and to the most elegantly painful break-up song in Broadway history, “We Do Not Belong Together.”

It’s a head-scratcher that there’s no synopsis in the booklet, but lyrics will help you to know who is singing, and some of Broadway’s best are on board: the 23-member ensemble includes Phillip Boykin, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Brooks Ashmanskas (who sadly has no dialogue or songs here as “Mr.”). Robert Sean Leonard plays George’s friend and mentor Jules, and Erin Davie is his doting, affected wife Yvonne; they are both hilarious in “No Life,” a reject of George’s technical experiments.

But there’s no need to even glance at the lyrics: The enunciation is so amazing, that even with Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics, you won’t miss a word (Chris Fenwick, musical director, and Bart Migal, producer, both of whom make Michael Starobin’s orchestrations more stunning than ever). It’s unclear why the recording is under 80 minutes, but released on two discs.

The entire cast centers on the humanity of the characters, achieving a realm of authenticity that lacked a bit on the original album; this genuineness only serves to highlight the universal truths in Sondheim’s lyrics. And when you hear their towering vocals in “Sunday” — the heavenly, soaring, ravishing choral number that ends both acts in glorious harmony — this CD will grab a hold of your heart and quietly pull it forward toward the show’s magnificent perspectives on life and art.

original production photos by Matthew Murphy

Sunday in the Park with George
2017 Broadway Cast Recording
Warner Music
2-CD set | 78:08
released December 8, 2017
available on Amazon and iTunes

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