Friday, June 17, 2011

A Toast To That Invincible Bunch: My Review of Company

Please dont' think it blasphemous when I say that Company is not my favorite Sondheim musical because I found the New York Philharmonic's production, which I saw in a humble movie theatre, to be impeccably done. It is technically a "staged concert," though my only previous experience with the show is the 2006 Broadway production directed by John Doyle in minimalist fashion. Because this show centers around everyday upper-middle class white folk, the simple staging suits it best. I know this phrase is tossed around a lot, even by me, but I really look at Company as "a play with music." There aren't too many showstoppers or flashy dance breaks, but the book and the story really shine. We open with bachelor Bobby's (Neil Patrick Harris) friends hiding in his apartment to surprise him for his 35th birthday. The play is not linear; it uses a series of vignettes to show Bobby's exploration of marriage through the lens of his married friends and three girlfriends.

Neil Patrick Harris is not the egotistical, set-in-his-ways Bobby seen in many productions, but rather he seems genuinely open to considering marriage. Throughout the play Bobby visits four couples where he learns important lessons about marriage, almost as if he were Ebeneezer Scrooge but without the ghosts. The first couple we are introduced to is Sarah (Martha Plimpton) & Harry (Stephen Colbert) who are both "on the wagon". They bicker about how long they'be been free from their addictions, his to alcohol and hers to food, while Bobby tries to intervene and assuage the situation. Colbert is a classic example of why Sondheim is for actors who sing rather than singers who act. He may not be a songbird, but comic timing, well that he has down pat. He and Plimpton have a kinetic chemistry that radiates from the silver screen, particularly when their witty repartee escalates into a hilarious karate match. Despite their fighting, they look forward to sleeping next to one another, which is Bobby's first lesson about marriage.

Susan (Jill Paice) & Peter (Craig Bierko) are the Southern Belle-Ivy League power couple and both actors do a fine job with relatively small parts. Susan is so charming that Bobby "wants to be the first to know when Peter leaves her". To his surprise they tell him they are divorcing. For Bobby, their divorce makes him even more cynical about marriage. Though Bobby is more of an observer and rarely comments on the marital problems of his friends, it is easy to see that Harris' wheels are always turning. He is taking stock of his friends though he cannot yet process what he's seen.

Next we meet Jenny (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and David (Jon Cryer) as they are lighting a joint with Bobby. Thompson is a very giddy Jenny, reminiscent of what she did with Glinda in Wicked, and Cryer is spot on as the very dry David. Jenny is uber-conservative and never swears, but when she is high, David takes great joy in hearing her repeat his obscenities. Bobby finds this charming, especially when David tells him that Jenny doesn't really enjoy pot, but she does it to please him.

You Could Drive A Person Crazy,  one of the more hum-able numbers from the show is a trio performed by Bobby's girlfriends Marta (Anika Noni Rose), April (Christina Hendricks), and Kathy (Chrissie Whitehead) as they discuss his skittish and noncommittal ways. He is their "hobby" and they're "giving  him up". The choreography is simple, but Whitehead stands out as the one with the most formal dance training and leaves the other two in the dust. Though Rose and Hendricks make up for the lack of dance technique in acting and presence, this number could've used more rehearsal. Rose's Marta is the standout among the three overall and her Another Hundred People is a highlight of the show. When she speaks of her love for the city and its energy I truly felt it, even in the movie theatre.

The act ends with Amy (Katie Finneran) & Paul (Aaron Lazar) on their wedding day. Amy has cold feet and can't stand the thought of being faithful to one man for the rest of her life. Amy is one of those roles that can be so tacky with the wrong actress but it is in good hands with Finneran and her Not Getting Married Today  is the best I've ever heard. Harris makes it quite clear that Bobby has feelings for Amy and he all but encourages her to call off the marriage. This is a cruel realization that Amy is off the market as she decides to marry Paul.

Act II kicks off back at Bobby's party and he blows out the candles followed by Side by Side, a song and dance number where he and all his friends sing about the joys of partnership. The choreography is based on call and response between the two-somes and it is a rude awakening for Bobby when he has nobody to finish his steps.

Hendricks' April relies heavily on flighty-ness and though its cute at the beginning, it slows the pace and by the end of Barcelona, you feel you've been watching the same scene for an hour. Things pick up when Bobby takes Marta to visit newly divorced Susan & Peter who are still living together. She is so excited by the prospect of a live-in divorce and adds that to the list of things she loves about New York City.

The penultimate scene is the show, features everyone's favorite number, The Ladies Who Lunch performed by Patti LuPone as Joanne. In between toasting her first and second husbands, she takes time to recognize that special class of women who "lounge in their caftans planning a brunch on their own behalf." LuPone can command any stage large or small and this is a perfect diva role for her. She puts her own spin on this number that is so closely connected with Elaine Stritch. She really takes her time and each lyric is crystal clear. She approaches it more as a scene than a song and its much more about diction and pacing than pitch and vibrato. She has the tall order of playing two roles: the real Joanne that her husband Larry (Jim Walton) is privy to and the more brassy abrasive Joanne that the rest of the world sees. She does each one impeccably well and the shift in her eyes when Larry tells Bobby that he hopes he can meet the real Joanne one day is a thing of beauty.

The final scene leaves Bobby very confused and Harris seems quite pained as he thinks of everything bad that there is about marriage. "Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair and ruin your sleep." His friends coax him from afar to realize that all of this elements of relationships that he perceives to be negative are just simple reminders that he is alive, something that he has been alone too long to remember. This transitions seamlessly to Being Alive, the emotional heart of the show. Sondheim is a master of the 11 o'clock number. Almost all of his shows feature an emotional catharsis where the protagonist learns a (sometimes hard to stomach) lesson. In Sunday in the Park With George, its Move On and in Into The Woods its Children Will Listen. Its the same as Losing My Mind in Follies  and Send In The Clowns in A Little Night Music.

We never really know what happens to Bobby but back in his apartment his friends leave, thinking he has forgotten about his party, and he reemerges to sit in his chair and grin before the lights go out. A pessimist may think that Bobby has pulled the wool over his friends' eyes and decided to remain alone even after they've shown him the "joys" of marriage. But I like to think that Bobby has finally grown up and realized that he can't make it on his own.

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