Every once in a while a classic musical is revived in a reinvented version that makes us realize how much the update was needed, even though we hadn’t noticed before. (Of course, not all of them work.) British director Marianne Elliott’s sensational new version of Company now on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is a case in point.
This theatrical genius, responsible for the Tony Award winning plays War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the most recent revival of Angels in America, knew that this 1970 musical comedy about a man about to turn 35 and having all his coupled friends trying to marry him off would seem dated in 2018 when she conceived of this version in London, in which the gender of the characters are reversed. With the help of another genius, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim who rejiggered his wise and witty lyrics, Elliott has made this old show by bookwriter George Furth seem spanking new as if we had never seen it before even though this is the fourth New York revival.
Now instead of a male Bobby, we now have Katrina Lenk (Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress In a Leading Role In a Musical for The Band’s Visit) as a female Bobbie: today women worry more about turning 35 if they haven’t had their first child while men today don’t worry about getting married by a certain age. Bobbie’s biological clock is ticking – which is made very clear in the new orchestrations and in the bedroom scene where the clock over the bed never stops turning. The original girlfriends (the airline stewardess April, Kathy and Marta) have become Andy (now the airline steward), Theo and P.J.
In addition, the couples have reversed personality traits so it is Peter who faints at heights not Susan, and it is David who claims he can’t get high on weed, not his wife Jenny, showing women to be more assertive today. The cast is multiracial which certainly reflects society, but wasn’t back in 1970 when everyone in the original production was Caucasian. The biggest change is that the fifth couple Paul and Amy who are getting married after living together for years is now a same-sex couple Paul and Jamie which surprisingly works just as well for 2021.
The show has also been updated to take into considerations changes in society and technology: everyone has a smart phone and takes selfies; it is a Lamborghini which is a measure of wealth not an apartment, “I’ll message you tomorrow” instead of “my service will explain;” and women clutch a copy of Time (not Life) to keep in touch with what is going on. PJ (originally Marta) names Latinx and “L G B T Q I A + you name it” as friends and Arabs have been replaced by Muslims.
A few bon mots have been added (“This whole country is about young. And it’s about money. And if you ain’t got one you sure better have the other”) that are pertinent to the mood of today which was not as true in 1970. There is also now an Alice in Wonderland moment, a surreal party sequence in which Bobbie fights with a huge one-story silver Mylar balloons that spell out 35, and the new “Tick Tock” ballet with its six Bobbies showing her life if she gets married to Andy and starts having children.
Sondheim’s songs, now standards, seem as clever as ever, and three of them stop the show: Matt Doyle (as Jamie)’s very fast-paced “(I’m Not) Getting Married Today,” Patti LuPone (Joanne)’s “The Ladies Who Lunch”, and Lenk (Bobbie)’s finale “Being Alive,” the reception to which could bring down the roof. However, “The Little Things You Do Together,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (sung by the three boyfriends now), “Side by Side by Side” and “Barcelona” could easily do so. And as P.J., Bobby Conte’s version of “Another Hundred People” in Elliott’s expert staging works just as well as the female version originally sung by Marta.
The cast is uniformly top-notch. The only wrinkle is that Bobbie is still as thinly written as in the 1970 script; the character remains an outsider and mainly tells the friends what they want to hear. The score also sits uncomfortably in Lenk’s voice, not entirely surprising as it was originally written for a tenor. However, her costar Patti LuPone, appearing in Company for the third time including the New York Philharmonic concert production in 2011 and the London production of 2018/19, has honed Joanne’s rapier wit to a finer point and all of her barbed remarks land with a greater sting. And her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is worth the price of admission. Terence Archie as her laid-back husband Larry is suave and elegant and makes a good foil to her bitchiness.
The couples all have their moments: Jennifer Simard and Christopher Sieber as the ultra-competitive pair; Rashidra Scott and Greg Hildreth as the pair getting a divorce but staying together which works for them; Christopher Fitzgerald (never more pixyish) and Nikki Renée Daniels with his continued denials and her unflappable nature, and Etai Benson and Matt Doyle as the couple about to get married with one having doubts and one having none. Among the three boyfriends, Claybourne Elder as the airline steward Andy almost steals the show as the dim-witted though handsome guy who needs everything explained to him and then it still takes time for it to reach him.
Elliott’s staging makes interesting use of Bunny Christie’s contemporary set with many of the scenes framed in white neon as though a selfie on a smart phone, as well as the giant sized letters of the word COMPANY which rotate and become prop pieces in various scenes. The birthday party scenes in Bobbie’s tiny dining room/foyer perfectly capture modern living today. The lighting which turns the neon tubes on stage various colors in Neil Austin design also perfectly captures the mood of the show. Christie’s costumes put Bobbie entirely in red and Joanne and Larry entirely in black, and the rest of the cast in color-coordinated sportswear, the hallmark of today’s required dress. Unlike so many Broadway musicals today, Ian Dickinson for Autograph’s sound design does not let you miss one of Sondheim’s acerbic lyrics nor the pulse of Joel Fram’s music direction of his 14-piece band which sits on a balcony above the set.
One of the reasons that Stephen Sondheim musicals do so well in revival is that they are sturdy enough to work in various formats. Marianne Elliott’s brilliant update of Company makes this look and sound like a brand new show. It is intended as a musical comedy but offers serious questions about relationships, friendship and marriage. When theater magic occurs it is undeniable, and this is a production that has a great deal to offer. Don’t plan on missing it.
Company (through July 31, 2022)
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.companymusical.com
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission