“Art Isn’t Easy” is not only a lyric but a theme that courses through Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s rapturous musical about the creative process, Sunday in the Park with George. This intimately staged revival directed by Lapine’s niece Sarna, draws out the humor in the work by casting the current reigning physical comedy queen, Annaleigh Ashford as Dot, George Seurat’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) unsatisfied girlfriend. We meet her as she’s holding a rigid pose on an uncomfortably hot Sunday afternoon. The image would later become the focal point of Seurat’s most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” but at the moment, it’s a source of annoyance: “George, why is it you always get to sit in the shade while I have to stand in the sun?” she asks pointedly.
He is too immersed in painting to respond. Ashford communicates multitudes with a single flinch that transports us inside Dot’s head. This subtle approach can be felt throughout and imbues the timeless musical with a modern sensibility. Gyllenhaal, donning a thick beard, brings a similarly organic intensity to the role of George and nails Sondheim’s complex phrasing with aplomb. The melody in “The Day Off” mimics the quick dabs of the artist’s brushstroke while the lyrics place us inside the moment of creation as he imagines the lives of the other people who will complete his tableau: a pair of soldiers, an American couple, the baker who will marry Dot (pregnant with George’s child) and take her to America. Louie (Jordan Gelber) is as ebullient as George is obsessive and his love for Dot is uncomplicated (and accompanied by pastries).
What makes Sunday arguably Sondheim’s best musical is how it works seamlessly on different levels. It’s a vividly imaginative peer into the creative life of a famous artist but also a heartbreakingly personal account of what it’s like to love someone who’s on a markedly different path. Dot, like a lot of people, wants a family and the tangible wealth that it necessitates. George is set on leaving a different mark on the world by discovering a new form of abstraction that puts colors side by side and lets the eye blend them, altering perspective depending on where the viewer stands.
That’s just the first act. Lapine and Sondheim then fast forward a hundred years and the George we see is Seurat’s great grandchild who is an artist working with light installations. In past productions, his latest work “Chromolume #7” comes off as a pretentious indulgence, but it’s a gorgeously realized work in the vein of James Turrell that feels like a future incarnation of Seurat’s exploration of the tension between color and light.
The malleable and subjective nature of criticism throughout time is another theme woven into the musical. It’s noted that Seurat never sold a painting in his life while a rival, Jules (played with biting nuance by Robert Sean Leonard) swims in wealth and offers his help in measured condescending ways, but a critic in the second act rightly suggests to George that he can do more than just chromolumes. Sondheim’s wisest piece of advice: “Stop worry if your vision is new. Let others make that decision—they usually do.”
Through: April 23 at the Hudson Theatre.