I’d be ill-equipped to share a proper review of a very special presentation of this beloved modern theater favorite featuring a star-studded cast, but I’m sure as hell going to tell everyone I had the good luck to see it! So forgive me if I brag a little. Trust me, if you had the opportunity to see Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George last week at the New York City Center, you’d brag a little bit too.
For those who may not know, the production was a celebratory performance honoring the great Adrienne Arsht. Its run would only include 4 (originally 3) shows, kicking off with an opening night on October 24th followed by a benefit gala attended by some of the most revered artists of contemporary Broadway theater. Against my better judgment and bank account balance, I made a beeline for the online ticket sales when I heard the show was adding a matinee performance on Wednesday, October 26th at 2pm. From the second-to-last row and an obstructed view, I not only witnessed a cavalcade of talent bring to life this contemporary Sondheim treasure, I also had the unique pleasure of experiencing this musical theater gem for the first time.
So what made me financially irresponsible enough to rush and buy a ticket for a mid-week afternoon performance with a view that may or may not have included nose-bleeds? Well, if you read the reviews and social media fanfare, you’ll see that everyone couldn’t stop cheering on Jake Gyllenhaal’s Georges Seurat, but almost all of my love and attention went to other members of the venerated cast — some of whom I’ve enjoyed in plays from this past theater season (She Loves Me, Shuffle Along, Thèrese Raquin), and others I’ve been trying to wrangle the opportunity to see since I began calling the East Coast home.
On Wednesday, I watched with delight as Phylicia Rashad, Annaleigh Ashford, Zachary Levi, Brooks Ashmankas, Gabriel Ebert and Phillip Boykin brought Sunday in the Park with George to life. Literally and figuratively. In the process, I discovered another trove of names to keep an eye out for when fortune is again on my side — actors like Carmen Cusack, Ruthie Ann Miles, Lisa Howard, Liz McCartney, Claybourne Elder and little Gabriella Pizzolo.
With that said, I almost feel sad that this was my first experience with Sondheim’s classic. Not because I was sitting in the seats where the air is thinner and I never got to take in Beowulf Boritt‘s full stage design with the massive Seurat painting. No. But because I fear my enthusiasm over the cast and their performances may have marred my interpretation and connection to Lapine’s story.
Sure. I knew the general plot and I mouthed the words to “Putting it Together” like the theater geek that I am. But every now and then, I found that Sondheim’s words struck a chord with me in such a way, I feared all my fangirling may have left me missing the bigger picture. (See what I did there.)
Lines referring to artistic expression and history and legacy and the need to cut one’s own path shook me, ever so briefly, as I tried my best to take in every moment of this revered cast’s performances. While marveling at how I didn’t think Zachary Levi could look any taller, then they gave him that hat, I connected with the revelation that Georges Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime. I’ve never been a big fan of Pointillism or Impressionism, in general, but I am a fan of tales of an artist’s struggle — especially in the days of the 19th century shift from patron-sponsored art to the birth of the starving artist bohème.
Sondheim presents a chorus of personalities for our theatrical feast, but it’s the execution of those important questions about legacy, community and finding and following one’s own path that makes Sunday in the Park with George the true phenom that it is. To approach such lofty themes with humility, respect and a motley crew of unlikely, but relatable characters takes a mind like no other. A mind like James Lapine’s.
After the curtain call and the orchestra delighted us with one last song as we exited the theater, I felt not only lucky to be a part of this strange and wonderful celebration, but I also felt blessed to have witnessed why this play hasn’t left the hearts of millions in 32 years. I may have come to ooh! and ahh! over the cast, but I walked out with a renewed connection to something much bigger.