Sunday in the Park With George review Gyllenhaal sings Sondheim superbly

Hats off to Jake Gyllenhaal, who leads a triumphant performance of Stephen Sondheims Pulitzer-winning musical about the very process of art-making

Look, Jake Gyllenhaal has made a hat. Where there occasionally has been a hat. His is a very fine hat. He ought to make more of them.

At New York City Center, Gyllenhaal took on the dual roles in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapines 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, playing a version of the painter Georges Seurat and that painters great-grandson, an artist in the 1980s.

This production, which ran for three days and four performances, was a benefit for City Center, which meant that very few people had a chance to spend Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday at the theater with George. Which is a shame. Unlike the previous New York revival, a 2008 London import, this production is almost overwhelming in its emotional lucidity and startling warmth.

The George of the first act is precise and focused with a streak of passion that Gyllenhaal never oversells. Of course most of that passion is directed toward his pointillist masterpiece, Un Dimanche Aprs-Midi lle de la Grande Jatte, particularly that tricky chapeau.

This is much to the displeasure of his model, Dot (a wry and luminous Annaleigh Ashford), who wishes that George would bestow some of that fervor on her. Or at least take her out to the follies. But he cant. His is an artistic process that crowds out everything else. How you watch the rest of the world / From a window / While you finish the hat, he sings, candidly, resignedly.

The concert performance reminds the audience of its meta-theatrical qualities. Photograph: Stephanie Berger

The second act moves forward 100 years or so, from Paris to Chicago, where a modern George is presenting a freshly commissioned work, Chromolume #7. Allegedly a response to Un Dimanche, it mostly looks like an off night at the planetarium. Its generally positive reception disheartens George and sends him looking for a form that will somehow merge past and present, old ways and new.

As befits a concert performance, the setting here is bare bones, though Clint Ramoss costumes elegantly clothe the flesh, and several of the actors carry scripts. Under the unfussy direction of Sarna Lapine (niece to James), this doesnt diminish the power of the musical and once in a while enhances it, reminding the audience of its meta-theatrical qualities. The piece not only concerns Seurats particular obsessions, but also extends itself to the problems of art-making more generally, of the detriments and dividends of devoting oneself to creative work.

The music is at once formally ambitious and deeply satisfying, with Sondheim seeming to search for an orchestral vocabulary that will offer equivalents for Seurats pointillism and chromoluminarism. In Color and Light, the short notes seem to mirror both Seurats careful daubing of paint and his restless thoughts as he works his brush.

An approach like that might seem somewhat abstracted and academic. Certainly, Sondheims cleverness can feel coldly brittle in the wrong hands. But thanks to the work of Gyllenhaal, Ashford, and the tremendous supporting cast (Phylicia Rashad, Carmen Cusack, Zachary Levi, Gabriel Ebert and Ruthie Ann Miles swell the ranks) the effect is immediate and elating. When the instruments and voices finally swell together into the sheer rapture of Sunday, all the theater, all the blustery city, seems a park on a sun-dappled day.

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