The British director John Doyle reinvented Sweeny Todd last season with an imaginative production that won him the Tony Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical. In his revolutionary staging he did away with the orchestra and instead had the cast double as musicians. Now he has applied the same idea to his current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1975 musical Company, which recently premiered with the same cast to excellent notices at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park this past spring. What worked marvelously for Todd, however, hinders Company. The concept interferes with the momentum draining the evening from any sense of urgency and taking the actors out of the moment.
Sondheim conceived the show with George Furth, who wrote the book, and the composer’s classic score is the best part of the evening. The songs include “The Little Things You Do Together,” “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” ‘Someone Is Waiting,” and one of his most memorable “Being Alive.” The often witty lyrics are laced with irony concerning the conflicts of love and romance.
Comprised like a series of sketches the Furth book that has always been the musical’s weakest link, now feels oddly dated. The story takes place in the revved up New York City world of the 30 something set, where dating and mating is the ultimate pastime. The show that was a realistic look, for the 1970’s, at love and marriage concerns five sophisticated couples and their mutual friend Robert (Raul Esparza), a bachelor considering the option of commitment on his 35 birthday. His friends hover around him worrying that poor Bobby is going to end up alone. Today with a society drenched in compulsive behavior, commitment phobia, , and multiple marriages the emphasis now is more on career or moving on than fear of being along.
As opposed to engaging us in the tale, the production’s key elements actually distance us from the action. The modest set by David Gallo, which is dominated by a white column and a Steinway piano, has an elegant feel, but there is no sense of time or place. The design is decidedly cool and gives the feeling of a concert hall contributing to the actor’s challenge to create intimacy. As if creating relationships while acting and playing instruments at the same time weren’t difficult enough, now they must establish the living room space as well.
Doyle set Sweeny Todd in an insane asylum full of crazy characters so when the actors picked up instruments, the effect contributed to the feeling of madness and disconnectedness. In Company we need to see the attempt of the people to connect with one another and the instruments only get in the way.
With only a few exceptions the actors, although fine, are rather ordinary and little about the performances feels lived in. The result is that many of the songs suffer, and we miss the throbbing drone of the busy city beat.
Barbara Walsh playing the worldly Joanne is one of those exceptions turning in a wonderfully sardonic and jaded characterization. She sings “Ladies Who Lunch,” made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original, and makes the song totally her own powerfully building to a resounding climax.
Another is Elizabeth Stanley as April the airline stewardess, who has a one night stand with Bobby. When she sings “Barcelona” the following morning she is a total delight turning the number into one of the evening’s highlights.
Raul Esparza plays Bobby and while he has a rich beautiful voice that is well suited to the Sondheim songs, he does little to give any sense of the character’s struggle. As the lone member of the ensemble that isn’t required to play an instrument, his job should be made easier, but he registers as a bland cipher, and we wonder why all these hip New Yorkers are so concerned about him. He nails the ending; however, delivering a full blast rendition of “Being Alive” that unfortunately feels milked for emotion. Yes, he plays the final painful moment, but never once throughout the evening do you see his effort to become real, so the climax feels forced. We need to witness his attempts and then watch him cover his failures for the explosive finale to be truly successful.
The evening is a mixed bag of high concept theatre ideas that fails to totally engage. There are highs and lows, but the score still soars and Sondheim after all is Sondheim.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Company opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, on November 29, 2006. Tickets are available via HYPERLINK "http://www.telecharge.com" www.telecharge.com /212-239-6200 or at the box office.