Company

Review by Adam Blair

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Direction and musical staging by John Doyle
Musical supervision and orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Starring Raúl Esparza, with Barbara Walsh, Keith Buterbaugh, Matt Castle, Robert Cunningham, Angel Desai, Kelly Jeanne Grant, Kristin Huffman, Amy Justman, Heather Laws, Leenya Rideout, Fred Rose, Bruce Sabath, Elizabeth Stanley
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City

It’s probably impossible to re-create the creative shock that Company delivered when it first opened in 1970, and the new revival, staged by the same John Doyle who triumphantly re-imagined Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd last season, doesn’t really try. It’s a wise choice: shock is short-lived, inevitably a product of its times, while the deep-seated ambivalence and emotional yearning that have always powered Company go on and on.

What exactly was so revolutionary back in those palmy days of the first Nixon administration? Let’s set the stage by remembering that those bastions of traditional musical comedy Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof were winding up their record-breaking original runs when Company debuted. The show was Sondheim’s first creative collaboration with producer/director Hal Prince, sparking a decade-long partnership that eventually included such revolutionary pieces as Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.

But Company was first, with its love/hate relationship with New York City; its protagonist (Bobby, played here by Raúl Esparza) who is an anti-protagonist — mostly a passive re-actor, a sharp-eyed commentator on the craziness of the married couples around him and at the same time an object and a toy for those same married couples. The show also featured acid-tinged, often acidly funny marital portraits by book writer George Furth — familiar territory in the stage works of Edward Albee or the films of Ingmar Bergman, but in a musical comedy? And how about “Being Alive,” the show’s 11 o’clock number that has Bobby finally grown-up enough to beg for “Someone to hold me too close/someone to hurt me too deep” — while the show as a whole still managed to suggest that Bobby’s ambivalence and reluctance to commit might still be stronger than the relentlessly upbeat conventions of musical comedy.

This revival proves that Company is still a strong piece, especially Sondheim’s score, with some of his cleverest, most biting lyrics creatively fighting with sometimes yearning, sometimes savagely angry music. Director Doyle brings some illuminating ideas to the table; not all of them pay off, but the “misses” didn’t distract me from the virtues of the “hits.”

Doyle and his set and lighting designers, David Gallo and Thomas C. Hase respectively, emphasize the game-like quality of the show and the relationships within it (Sondheim is an inveterate gamester himself, from crosswords to scavenger hunts). The central playing space is a parquet-floored square with one of its points sticking into the center of the orchestra’s first row, with a track around the square that Doyle frequently uses for round-and-round marches that never get anywhere. From my seat it looked like a Monopoly board. Stage left and right features clear plastic boxes on which the non-playing company members watch and play their instruments (more on that later), with the Lucite-like boxes reflected by smaller clear plastic tables/seats within the square. The incongruous element is a phallic Greek column that changes colors depending on the mood of the scene: it’s alternately a pedestal and something to hide behind.

On a practical level this makes for a flexible set of playing spaces — helpful when the scenes take place in a variety of Manhattan apartments. On an imagistic level, Bobby is both a pawn and a game-player himself. His friends, the “crazy married people” (five couples exhibiting a range of middle-class marital neuroses), need him as a safety valve for their own relationships: Sondheim’s lyrics in “Side by Side” ask “Who is a flirt?/But never a threat?” and “Who changes subjects on cue?/Who cheers us up when we’re blue?”, and the answer is always dependable Bobby — “you never need an analyst with Bobby around.” As a swinging single, he’s also a source of vicarious pleasure for the husbands, and an object of pity and (relatively) harmless fantasy for the meddling, matchmaking wives. They’re all “being the kids/as well as the sitter.”

And Bobby himself is a game-player: he keeps the cast’s three single women on a range of long and short leashes, never quite committing and never quite turning away. And the married couples are useful to this 35-year-old bachelor as a series of Bad Examples: if marriage makes you insanely competitive with each other, slyly contemptuous of each other, or ready to commit adultery at the drop of a hat, what good is it? Sondheim and Furth seem to suggest that marriage is a bit like Winston Churchill’s take on democracy: it’s the worst form of government — except for all the others.

What works least well in this revival is what’s been most talked about: that the cast members double as the orchestra, both singing and playing everything from the onstage piano to a tiny triangle. Doyle used this gimmick for Sweeney Todd, but what was revelatory there (theater queens everywhere now have the image of Patti LuPone’s Mrs. Lovett puffing on a tuba) is, well, gimmicky here. Only occasionally does Doyle integrate the instrument-playing into the play, but it works well when he does. In “Side by Side” the married couples each play half of a musical phrase, “throwing” the other half to their partner. Singleton Bobby blows his notes on a kazoo, but no one picks up the cue.

That’s the only time Bobby plays an instrument until “Being Alive,” when he sits at the piano for this beautiful cry of pain and longing. Esparza is a marvelous actor/singer: he mines Bobby’s rueful humor and his little-boy-lost qualities — no easy task when the character spends most of his time reacting to others. Esparza is great with Bobby’s big ballads — “Someone is Waiting” and “Marry Me a Little” — really tapping into the emotional content of the songs.

As for the rest of the cast: Company is full of thankless roles, with two or three exceptions. The show is about Bobby but, as noted, he is more often a mirror than a catalyst. The married couples get only a few scenes each to make a vivid impression, as do the three single girls, but they have to be convincing enough individually and as a company for the play to work. Their efforts at individualization aren’t helped by Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes for this production, with their color palette limited to minor variations on black, white and silver. Even in chic Manhattan people wear primary colors and pastels once in a while.

Sondheim has always helped some characters break out of the pack by giving them fabulous comic songs. Heather Laws triumphs as Amy, the bride-to-be who sings her nervous breakdown at Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter-song speed with “Getting Married Today” (“Look perhaps/I’ll collapse/In the apse right before you all/So take/back the cake/Burn the shoes and boil the rice!”). Elizabeth Stanley’s April, all wide-eyed, early-Goldie-Hawn-style innocence as a naïve flight attendant, makes “ Barcelona” (the unexpected aftermath of a one-night stand) as wonderful as it’s always been.

Only “The Ladies Who Lunch” really disappoints. Perhaps the memory of Elaine Stritch’s career-defining interpretation is too strong; perhaps Barbara Walsh’s Joanne seems too in control to turn the song’s outward-directed sarcasm into self-loathing on a dime. On the plus side, the relative failure of “Lunch” makes “Being Alive” the show’s true climax, as it should be.

When it comes down to it, Sondheim is such a valuable resource that anyone who loves his work — who loves musical theater — should see even a less-than-perfect revival like this one. Writing a show about ambivalence seemed like climbing Mt. Everest in 1970; little did we know that Sondheim would make the impossible possible again and again.

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