If a theatrical gimmick works once, will it work twice?
Last year John Doyle won a Tony for best director of a musical for the revival of Stephen Sondheimï¿½s masterpiece Sweeney Todd. Unlike previous productions of that show, it featured a unit-set, dispensed with the orchestra in favor of having the music played by members of the cast, and provided the distinct pleasure of watching Patti Lupone sashaying around with a tuba.
This year, Doyle and Co. have elected to revive Sondheimï¿½s Company and, again, cast members are playing the instruments. Marching in with military precision and seated on an assortment of Plexiglas boxes, the members of the cast function mainly as observers providing occasional musical support. This time the gimmick neither adds to nor detracts from the show.
The problem is that Company is no Sweeney Todd.
Company, with a book by George Furth, opened in the early 1970s and provided a kind of New York Magazine version of the woes of several trendy Manhattan couples. The showï¿½s protagonist is Bobby, a single friend of theirs who is celebrating his 35th birthday, and on whom they project their various fantasies of success and failure. The plot, such as it is, consists of a string of individual numbersï¿½more a revue than a storyline.
Throughout a lot of whining, there stands our hero Bobby, totally passive to what is going on around him. What a waste, especially when Bobbyï¿½s played by the really talented and attractive Raul Esparza. Here, his main activity here seems to be leaping from the top of a piano to the top of a radiator surrounding a single white column on the otherwise mostly black and plastic set by David Gallo. (The set for original Broadway production of Company by Boris Aronson was memorableï¿½several stories of a shiny apartment block, complete with elevatorï¿½one of the best things about the show.)
As one would expect in even a mediocre Sondheim show, several of the numbers are swell. My faves include the contrapuntal, ï¿½Getting Married Todayï¿½ where the art of quick-speak is excellently executed by Heather Laws, the cynical and clever ï¿½Barcelonaï¿½, and, of course, the number introduced by and subsequently done to a fare-thee-well on numerous occasions by Elaine Stritch, ï¿½The Ladies Who Lunch.ï¿½ Barbara Walsh does it well here but in no way eclipses the inimitable Elaine. And then there the big number that opens the second act, ï¿½Side by Side by Sideï¿½. Itï¿½s fun and provided the title of a terrific revue containing many of Sondheimï¿½s hits that played Broadway in the late 1970s and really deserves to be updated and revived.
Despite the gimmick, there is not much that is special about this production.
Review by Barbara Mehlman
Prominently displayed in the great Pantheon of Musical Theater are the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, and Lerner and Loewe. Their popular musicals -- some written 50 years ago -- ran for hundreds of performances, yet their songs are sung today by cabaret artists, probably on an average of one every five minutes. Irving Berlin's 'Annie Get Your Gun' alone contributed seven songs to the standard repertoire.
Then there's Stephen Sondheim. Of the 14 musicals he wrote, only one -- 'Send In The Clowns' -- can be considered a standard. Yet he's the most original, admired, copied, respected, and by many, loved musical theater writer today.
Admittedly his works are frequently difficult, both musically and conceptually, but always they are worth the intellectual and emotional workout. I like to think of them as the equivalent of singing op-ed pieces, written to poke at our comfort and flay our most deeply held myths. That he can perform this feat with wit and wisdom is what makes him so great.
'Into the Woods,' Sondheim's 1987 musical which ran nearly two years, is the most obvious of his myth-busters, dealing with the aftermath of Happily Ever After. Is life really blissful for Cinderella after marrying Prince Charming? What happens to Jack after he slays a Giant and becomes rich?
This season, the Happily Ever After myth has shown up again on Broadway in an unusual and oddly cast, revival of 'Company,' Sondheim's look at marriage as seen from the perspective of the commitment-challenged Bobby who's just turned 35 and insists he's ready to be married. Except that if he is, then why isn't he?
All five New York couples come to celebrate Bobby's birthday, and the more they sing about married life, the more one has to wonder about its wonders. Harry and Sarah are a couple addicted to one another, as well as to alcohol and food. Susan and Peter have divorced but still live together, "more married now than when we were married."
Amy, who's about to marry Paul, sings the tongue-twisting, jaw-breaking, breath-taking 'Getting Married Today,' insisting that she's not getting married. And Joanne, who's on husband number four only wants a man who finds her "endlessly fascinating."
In the original 1970 production, Joanne was played by the now legendary Elaine Stritch who did the stunning 'The Ladies Who Lunch.' This Joanne, played by Barbara Walsh, is missing that je ne sais quoi that made Stritch's performance a show-stopper, and this one so ordinary.
The same is true for Heather Laws, who plays Amy. The script calls for someone "skinny" but Laws is buxom and zaftig. The problem here lies with director John Doyle, who conceived the recent revival of 'Sweeney Todd' in which the cast played the instruments. He duplicates that gimmick here to lesser effect and as a result, the casting is compromised.
Even Raul Esparza, who plays Bobby but not an instrument, is miscast. In 'tick, tick BOOM' and 'The Rocky Horror Show' he was electric, but here he's barely charged -- until he sings 'Being Alive.' Sad that we have to wait till the end of the show to see him do his stuff.
'Company,' however, is still very much worth seeing, despite my griping. Sondheim's lyrics are brilliant, you can really hum the music, and as always, he's ever provocative and always relevant. The show is simply performed in concert style on a non-set of platforms, with a black grand piano adorned only by a vase of funereal white lilies. Nice touch.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½Fire flickers, dangerous and beckoning, beneath the frost of John Doyleï¿½s elegant, unexpectedly stirring revival" & "Mr. Doyleï¿½s 'Company,' first staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse earlier this year, isnï¿½t the unconditional triumph that his 'Sweeney Todd' was, partly because the show itself is less of a fully integrated piece and partly because much of the acting is weaker. Only a few of the 14 ensemble members ï¿½ playing the couples who are permanent fixtures in Bobbyï¿½s life and his strictly temporary girlfriends ï¿½ seem at ease dispensing Mr. Furthï¿½s brittle, uptown, shrink-shrunk dialogue. But they all blossom as musicians and singers of wit and substance. As soloists theyï¿½re more than adequate, but itï¿½s their work as a team that sounds new depths in 'Company' in ways that get under your skin without your knowing it."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "How do you take a ground-breaking Stephen Sondheim musical about commitment in the big city, with such a memorable score and murderous wit, and turn it into a suburban vanilla revue? Director John Doyle has managed that dubious feat." & "The ensemble is overall bland and none of the characters ever comes alive. While the set is sleek, the costumes are anything but. The men are stuck in frumpy sweaters and baggy suits. The women, in beads, bows and black lace, just look cheesy. Doyle's lethargic direction saps the edginess and vitality. He has largely stripped the show of movement, except when performers circle the stage with their instruments, periodically stopping to speak."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "Confession time: I've never been completely happy with Stephen Sondheim's 'Company,' which exuberantly returned to Broadway last night in director John Doyle's inventive reinvention. We've become accustomed to British directors coming and, for better or worse, reshaping our dear American musicals. But as we saw with Doyle's wonderful "Sweeney Todd" last season, like those strippers in "Gypsy," he's a guy with a strangely workable gimmick. "
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "A reinvigorated 'Company' looks and sounds like a contemporary show, rather than as a period piece dated by its 1970 stylistics" & "Newly redone by Mary-Mitchell Campbell to be performed by a dozen actors onstage rather than by an orchestra in the pit, the music seems both warmer in quality and more spontaneous in nature. The effect is one of deeper humanity than before. Doyle wittily integrates this music-making into his staging. Acerbic socialite Joanne clinks a cocktail glass to punctuate the domestic horrors of "The Little Things You Do Together." Robert's three girlfriends blat on alto saxophones for "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." No longer tapping, the couples do their call-and-response riffs in "Side by Side by Side" with instruments. And in the upbeat finish, Robert himself finally discovers how to make music."
ELYSA GARDNER of USATODAY: "It seemed like a great idea: Bring a classic Stephen Sondheim musical back to Broadway, with John Doyle, who directed last season's acclaimed Sweeney Todd, on board. But while Doyle's new Company has a number of elements to recommend it, the whole is less than the sum of its considerable parts." & "Raul Esparza's vaguely smart-alecky Robert doesn't help. Though smart and attractive, he lacks the charisma that draws Company's protagonist to women and men. Others fare better. Barbara Walsh's dry, haunted Joanne is a standout, bringing an extra layer of rage to Sondheim's brilliant barbfest The Ladies Who Lunch. Heather Laws and Elizabeth Stanley amuse as neurotic Amy and dizzy April. Not everyone in Company's company manages to transcend the chinks in this imperfect but intriguing production. Still, like one of Bobby's fleeting lovers, this crowd is worth spending an evening with."
JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS: " 'Company' is a producer's dream. No musicians to pay! No sets to build! No costume changes! A concert version is all it is, but if the producers are lucky the critics will line up to say that it's a return to "pure" theater. At Broadway prices, of course. That's what most of the critics did last year, anyway, welcoming an impossibly low-tech 'Sweeney Todd.' The actors played their own instruments! What a novelty! This year, the newness of the concept seems to be over." & "The fact is that if you haven't seen this show before in a fully staged production, you won't know what's going on in the show. As for Esparza, he sings his 11 o'clock number, "Being Alive," in a tone of misplaced rage, not bittersweet hope. That's a loss for the thematic richness of this show. The question that really looms over this production is why Sondheim would have allowed it to be brought to Broadway in the first place."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "How much does it mean to say that "Company," which opened last night with a breakthrough performance by Raï¿½l Esparza, is the very best revival that Broadway has ever seen of Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1970 musical? Of course, except for a well-intentioned but earnest production in 1995, this also happens to be the only return of this beloved but ever-troubled masterwork to the town it embraces with dazzling ambivalence. But British director John Doyle, who radically reinvented Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" last season, has triumphed again - more gently this time, and with less at stake. As in "Sweeney," the actors also play instruments onstage. With "Sweeney," however, Doyle was tampering with a massive repertory staple that had already worked magnificently in operatic and chamber versions. In contrast, nobody really expects 'Company' to work." & "The novelty remains Doyle's technique of using actors as their own orchestra. The news is that he utilizes the style to save the show - turning it from an episodic concert to a cohesive and satisfying emotional experience. His version combines material from the original and the 1995 revivals here and at London's Donmar Warehouse. Somehow, he has made more than a few scenes feel so fresh, even daring, that we had to check the script to make sure we'd heard most of them before."
PETER MARKS of THE WASHINGTON POST: "In his Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," he gave the lovably bloodthirsty Mrs. Lovett a tuba. Now, in "Company," John Doyle places bachelor-hero Bobby behind a piano. And once again, the new notes this innovative director teases out of a Stephen Sondheim musical combine to produce a novel symphony of buoyant surprises." & "There was the worry that the production, coming so soon after "Sweeney," would seem like mere opportunism, an attempt to artificially extend the life of an esoteric concept. Turns out the anxiety was misplaced. If skepticism is in the air as you walk into the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where "Company" opened last night, elation is the feeling walking out. Invigorated by the brooding charisma of Raul Esparza, in the most controlled and captivating performance of his career, Doyle's "Company" proves a marvelous showcase for Sondheim's artistry. Many of the songs in this savvy, inventive musical -- whose importance seems only to grow with time -- are handled as wittily and tenderly as you are likely to hear them."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "At one point, Esparza poses like a modern-day martyr, standing weirdly as if he were St. Sebastian against a looming white column that divides the Barrymore stage. Unlike Sebastian, though, he isn't pierced by arrows but by the stinging barbs of his critical friends. Those friends are played by actors, who, like Esparza, appeared in this revival when it was done earlier in the year at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park. They are a likable group, but they rarely raise the show's theatrical temperature. It might be those musical instruments. Marching around a stage while carrying a French horn or a triangle would make anyone feel self-conscious. You can see these performers working their way through the roles ï¿½ and carefully concentrating on playing those instruments when they should be creating characters." & "'Company' is a musical about relationships ï¿½ or the lack of relationships. They may be messy and misunderstood, but they are better than the lonely alternative that is facing Bobby on his 35th birthday. The show may not always be joyous, but it shouldn't be funereal, which is what occasionally comes across in this production. Maybe it is the monochromatic costumes. Or the spare, almost nonexistent setting, which has the actors quietly sitting on stage ï¿½ sort of like in the cemetery scene from "Our Town" ï¿½ when they aren't performing. There's even a vase of lilies on the baby grand."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "After yielding the most singularly exciting musical theater experience on Broadway last season with "Sweeney Todd," the collaboration of director John Doyle and composer Stephen Sondheim has spawned another arresting revival with 'Company.' " & "As Robert, the central figure marking his 35th birthday by pondering why he's the only one of his circle not married, Raul Esparza strikes just the right balance of easy charm and circumspect distance, alone even in a crowd of friends. He's a deeply ambiguous mass of swirling contradictions -- confused but self-knowing, seductive but standoffish, vulnerable but heavily armored, open to love but ambivalent. And Bobby's sexual identity is called more directly into question here than perhaps ever before. Esparza has been hovering on the brink of Broadway stardom for some years, and this is a terrific role for him with his sad-eyed, brooding good looks, wry humor and passionate singing voice. In the past, he has often cranked up the vibrato a little strenuously, but he's in fine, controlled voice here -- robust at times, soft and sweet at others. "
External links to full reviews from newspapers