NEW YORK — Can he? Why, yes, he can.
In a springtime of illustrious leading ladies on Broadway — Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!,” Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in “War Paint,” Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard,” among others — Gyllenhaal adds vital, measurable wattage on the masculine half of the musical ledger. Ben Platt of “Dear Evan Hansen” and Josh Groban of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” have earned popularity, too, in other spheres and are front-runners for Tony nominations. But Gyllenhaal is the only bona fide male movie star doing the acting-and-singing thing on the theater world’s biggest platform this season (even as the producers of “Sunday in the Park,” with its limited run, opted to take the show out of the Tony running).
And here, playing opposite Annaleigh Ashford in an extraordinarily well-cast revival that had its official opening Thursday night at the Hudson Theatre, Gyllenhaal cements the impression of legitimate vocalist he made in a shorter-lived stage outing, as Seymour in a 2015 concert version of “Little Shop of Horrors” for City Center’s Encores! series. Gyllenhaal and Ashford create the kind of lust-driven connection that just may rise above the memorable heat generated by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original 1984 production, for which Sondheim and Lapine won the Pulitzer Prize.
Sarna Lapine, who is the book writer’s niece, directs this incarnation, which also began as an Encores! concert — the same Encores! that spawned the blockbuster revival of “Chicago,” running since 1996. Sarna Lapine’s “Sunday” is another bravura notch in the Encores! belt. Deftly guiding a 20-member cast through a musical that delves movingly into the ways visual artists teach us never to take for granted what’s in plain sight, the director reminds us again of Sondheim’s own unstinting art. That astonishing score is made up of plaintive melody lines and scintillating fragments — similar to the countless dots of paint in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the pointillist masterpiece by Georges Seurat that inspired the musical. The music and lyrics still sound as if they, too, are fresh out of the studio, under the excellent baton of music director Chris Fenwick and a 14-member orchestra.
“Sunday in the Park” has often felt as if it were two one-act musicals, each constructing an intellectual argument. Act 1, set in the Paris of the 1880s, is the story of Seurat’s personal frustrations with Ashford’s Dot and his professional clash with an artistic establishment that refuses to embrace the scientific approach to color and perception that Gyllenhaal’s George champions. Act 2 fast-forwards to the 1980s and Seurat’s imagined descendant, an artist (also named George and played by Gyllenhaal) whose conceptual approach also owes a debt to technology but who is now suffering from inspirational fatigue. What links them is Dot and, later, Dot’s elderly surviving daughter (also played by Ashford) — through whom the realization comes that as a catalyst for art, love is the most transcendent force there is.
Chiefly through Gyllenhaal’s performance — at once intense and accessible — this version makes clearer than ever the incisive emotional channel from Act 1 to Act 2. In each half of the musical, too, there is a visual coup, in the form of an example of each artist’s work. At the end of Act 1, it’s the thrilling tableau of Seurat’s painting come to life. And in Act 2, it’s a demonstration of the artist’s experiments with color and light in the form of a laser display that he calls a “chromolume.”
The dazzling chromolume that Sarna Lapine and her design team have dreamed up puts to shame all previous productions’ efforts at creating the effect. The staging of the three-dimensional version of “La Grande Jatte” in Act 1, however, robs that moment of its full breathtaking potential. The platform on which the actors stand is not wide or deep enough, the result being that — at least from the view from orchestra seats — the actors look too crowded together, as they assume the famous poses of the painting.
Still, it’s a minor error, in an evening of numerous pleasures. Among the many other terrific turns, Penny Fuller makes for an especially elegant mother for Seurat, and Robert Sean Leonard gives satisfying depth to the role of a disapproving artist who betrays some regret for denigrating his suffering, younger colleague; in smaller roles, Ruthie Ann Miles, Claybourne Elder, Liz McCartney, Erin Davie and Ashley Park are among those who let us see oft-inhabited musical characters in agreeable new lights.
Then there’s Ashford, who, from the opening title song to the 11 o’clock number, “Move On,” is a transfixing delight, the funny, flirty, ultimately touching ballast for Gyllenhaal, in a performance that’s fair to label a gorgeous George.
Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Music direction, Chris Fenwick; musical staging, Ann Yee; set, Beowulf Boritt; projections, Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Kai Harada; orchestrations, Michael Starobin. With David Turner, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Jordan Gelber, Mattea Conforti, Jennifer Sanchez. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $59-$375. Through April 23 at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St., New York. Visit thehudsonbroadway.com.