nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 6, 2006
You could stage a production of Stephen Sondheim & George Furth's Company where everybody was naked, or each couple sang in a different language, or where everybody hopped up and down on one foot all evening long—you could, but I don't know why you'd want to. So it is with John Doyle's staging of this 1970 musical landmark, sans set, sans costumes, and mostly sans characterizations, but with a musical instrument on every actor's lap (more than one in most cases). Gimmickry aside, what's the point of presenting this particular show in this particular way? Darned if I know.
What I do know is that the score generally isn't done justice: the need to find actors who can and will sing AND play an instrument or two seems to limit the pool of who eventually gets cast, and so many of the show's most famous songs get short shrift. "Another Hundred People," one of my favorite items in the score, a haunting and melancholy mini-epic about comings and goings in the anonymous big city, loses most of its meaning in a tepid, by-the-books rendering by Angel Desai. "Getting Married Today," in which a reluctant bride breathlessly enumerates all the reasons she's not doing what the song's title says she's doing, is mangled by Heather Laws, who gasps for breath throughout while failing to clearly enunciate the song's brilliantly witty lyrics.
Barbara Walsh, a very capable actress, has the showy role of Joanne, which was indelibly originated by Elaine Stritch; she's elected, or been directed, to deliver a Stritch imitation in lieu of a performance, which is a very bad idea.
Making the orchestra's members do double duty means that the orchestra's resources are limited. Mary-Mitchell Campbell's orchestrations are ingenious, to be sure, but they frequently don't have the full, rich sound that a Sondheim score on Broadway deserves. Not to mention that, for $111.25 top ticket price, I'd sure want an orchestra in addition to actors to bring the music to life.
Looking for some dancing to shake things up? Look somewhere else: Doyle has dispatched all the choreography from this show, replacing it with lots of static images and what look and feel like marching band formations the rest of the time. "Side by Side by Side," a song whose staging instructions are contained in its title, turns into a random morass of cast members carrying their instruments back and forth across the stage; my attention got diverted by Walsh's arrival on stage with a drink cart that turned out to contain another instrument for her to play. Surely I should be focused on what the song is about, not the logistics of getting the xylophone on stage.
Company has a book (albeit a very dated one): it tells the story of Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor who is looking to/at/beyond the examples of his friends, five very different married couples, to figure out whether or not the thing that's missing from his life is the eponymous notion of someone to share his life with. Furth's tale is set in a hodgepodge of New York City apartments and public spaces, here all represented by David Gallo's spare orchestra pit-on-stage, a single setting, dominated by a Steinway piano, that looks sort of like a grand ballroom in a first-class hotel. Our imaginations must supply other surroundings for the characters, which becomes difficult in a scene like the one where Robert has wild passionate sex with a stewardess named April, only there's no bed and nobody takes off any clothes or even kisses or touches very much; we have to fill in ALL the blanks. (As a result, the great joke of the subsequent musical number, "Barcelona," garners nary a titter from the audience.)
And the attitudes, and specific lines, are, as I said, badly out-of-date. Someone says that the pulse of New York is a busy signal at one point: Does anyone still have a busy signal? The world has changed a lot since 1970: ladies don't clutch copies of Life Magazine anymore, and in our super-model culture I don't think they obsess about making fattening desserts but rather avoiding them (and they don't call themselves stewardesses either, do they?) Yet Doyle has done nothing to set this story in its proper time frame or to somehow update it so that it might feel contemporary. The emotional relationships in Company still ring true, sure; but the anachronistic details jar and distract constantly.
The show has its share of successful moments, particularly Raúl Esparza's passionate rendition of "Being Alive" at the end of the play and Matt Castle's excellent accompaniment, on piano and bass, for several of the numbers. But for each element that works are at least two that don't. What is "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" about if it's not an Andrews Sisters pastiche? Why is Amy's wedding dress black? Why is April carrying a tuba into Robert's apartment?
Many people whom I know and respect tell me they've enjoyed and/or been moved by this Company, but I have to admit that I'm at a loss as to how that's possible. Doyle's stripped-down approach exemplifies two disturbing recent trends in Broadway musicals, as far as I'm concerned: the ongoing assault on classic American works by deconstructionist British directors and the producing-on-the-cheap gambit that's an insult to audiences and their pocketbooks. Too much more of this and all the reasons that the American musical was once the crowning achievement of our native theatre will be nothing more than a distant memory.