Monday, February 27, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Movie Star Goes Legit

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in front of the George Booth Theatre in the mid-'80s for "Sunday in the Park with George." Photo: Sara Krulwich/Getty Images
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Last Week In The Hudson Theatre With Jake Gyllenhaal — Movie Star Goes Legit, and He's Great!

“STEPHEN Sondheim’s oeuvre is profoundly literary in its elegiac reaching for the truth of who we are, how we love and how we strive to locate meaning in our work.”

That’s Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, on the great Mr. Sondheim, who will be the first composer-lyricist to receive the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award on April 25th, in New York.

What’s interesting about Mr. Solomon’s tribute, is that it falls into the category of being a mini review of sorts of Sondheim’s newly revived classic, “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of "Sunday in the Park with George." Photo by Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts.
If anything in Sondheim’s vast output tells a tale of how love and work combine and clash, it is “Sunday ...” which debuted back in 1984.
Last week’s opening night, at the refurbished Hudson Theater was awash both in nostalgia and vigorous new energy. The great director, Jack O’Brien, fresh from the closing of his hit, “The Front Page” turned to me during intermission with tears in his eyes. And most of the audience seemed to be quite aware that Sondheim himself was sitting in the front row of the balcony.

From his vantage point, he not only watched an exquisite revival of one of his (and James Lapine’s) most venerated works, but he watched as the dazzling star of the original production, Bernadette Peters made a stunning entrance. Whether it’s witchcraft or vitamins or the blood of virgins, Miss Peters looks pretty much as she did in 1984!
Fran, Bernadette, Holland, Rosie, and Holly on opening night.
Fran Drescher, Holland Taylor, Rosie O’Donnell, Kathy Najimy, Kate Burton, Holly Hunter, Gayle King, Cameron Mackintosh were just a few who I spotted as the crowd settled in for one the most eagerly awaited opening nights of the season.
Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was the insipration for Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George."
The cast of “Sunday in the Park with George." Photo: Matthew Murphy
THE word on Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of the obsessive artist Georges Seurat was already good — he had played the part last year in a spare concert version of the show. But who knew he’d come across like a Broadway veteran, every bit as assured as his adorable Tony-winning co-star Annaleigh Asford?! (Ashford is a familiar face to theatergoers — she’s been in “Wicked” “Kinky Boots” and won her Tony for the 2015 revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.”)
Jake Gyllenhaal and co-star Annaleigh Asford.
I’d recalled “Sunday…” as not my favorite Sondheim, but this production, and Mr. Gyllenhaal, turned me around quite a bit. The show is just marvelous to look at — a flimsy curtain closes off the onstage orchestra, there is no real set to speak of. Yet in its simplicity it is ... rather sumptuous! The design (Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Ken Billington), and costumes (Clint Ramos) are perfect. And director Sarna Lapine (James Lapine’s neice) gets the very best out of the entire cast.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Miss Ashford, whom TV viewers know as Betty DiMello from Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” has a wonderfully expressive face that even in repose, isn’t. Her vivacity works so well with Gyllenhaal’s Seurat, his likeability and huge puppy-dog eyes taking the curse off a character that could easily be seen as unsympathetic. She sings Sondheim’s plaintive/funny/haunting score beautifully, and yes, indeed, so does Jake! If he wasn’t so profitably good at his day job — big Hollywood movie star — he certainly has a home waiting for him on Broadway. Perhaps if “La La Land” really does “bring back the movie musical” Jake Gyllenhaal will be the industry’s new Gene Kelly? (He probably can’t dance quite as well as Gene did, but he certainly sings better. He sings a lot better than Ryan Gosling, too!)
Well, it turns out I like “Sunday in the Park with George” much more than I thought I did. Certainly I loved this production. The emotional standing ovation at the final curtain was deeply felt (lots of tears!) and very much deserved.

There was a party after, at the New York Public Library. I stayed only long enough to have a couple of sliders and enjoy the fact that this bastion of wisdom was all tarted up like Nero’s Golden Palace — one section seemed devoted to disco music. There might have even been a glittering disco ball involved. It’s always fun to see people in black-tie “get down.”
SPEAKING OF the theater, the journalist/activist Jay Blotcher was moved, after reading here about Estelle Parsons directing “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," to tell of his 2003 phone interview with Parsons. It was around the time she was directing “Salome.”

Jay writes: “I observed that she and Al Pacino and Dianne Wiest had the good fortune of rehearsing the show over a period of eight months. I asked whether any unexpected revelations had come from the Oscar Wilde text after so much scrutiny. The sound of silence on the other end, and then she said, ‘You know absolutely nothing about the theater.’
Al Pacino with Dianne Wiest and Marisa Tomei in "Salome."
“I gulped and we said our goodbyes and hung up. I was about to start to lick my wounds when the phone rang, ‘Jay, it’s Estelle. I’ve been thinking about what you just said’ and she was off and talking for another ten minutes!”

Estelle keeps a weekend home in Jay’s town of High Falls and he describes her as a good neighbor — she judged the bingo benefit last year.
The Crazy Hat Bingo judges last year were, from left: Tony Award winner Mary Louise Wilson (Grey Gardens), local musician Dean Jones, and Estelle.
Jay also recalls seeing the Oscar-winner at a local coffee shop a while ago. “It’s tiny and cramped, which means strangers sit with one another. I saw her chatting animatedly with a young man who had ‘farm boy’ written all over his face. He was talking a blue streak and she was nodding enthusiastically. I just had to know what these two had in common. So I circled their table, just in time to hear the kid exclaim, ‘... and that’s what Ultimate Frisbee is!’”

I love it. And I get it. Estelle’s work takes her to places where Salome dances and Judas goes on trial. Why not some bingo and Frisbee?

Contact Liz here.