Last season British director John Doyle’s brilliantly conceived re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd was the recipient of accolades and the coveted Tony Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical. Its primary innovation was having the actors address the score by playing their own instruments. That lightning has struck twice for Doyle is evident in his also similarly approached actors-with-instruments-in-hand staging of Sondheim’s 1970s breakthrough musical Company. It was inevitable that this production, that premiered this past spring at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park and garnered rave reviews, head for Broadway. In marked contrast to Doyle’s dark vision for Sweeney Todd, as a show performed by inmates of an insane asylum, Company is appropriately less eccentric but is as cleverly re-considered. Many of the performers are making their Broadway debuts and all seem extremely proficient in their various musical disciplines.
This is not the first Broadway revival of the controversial musical that many theatergoers liked to dislike during its original run. A revival in 1995 by the Roundabout Theater Company did have many of these same theatergoers admitting that their feelings about Sondheim’s brilliantly witty score and George Furth’s brashly bitchy book were subject to change, more specifically subject to a little less hostility. In its latest incarnation, Company continues to resonate with a musical savvy that is uniquely Sondheim.
But perhaps it is simply the book that purposefully and without apology sours the experience. Yet, isn’t that exactly the taste that we are meant to savor? Gearing the plot to the sensibilities of so-called sophisticated New Yorkers, Furth, who also collaborated with Sondheim on Merrily We Roll Along and Getting Away With Murder, was clearly fixated on the denigration of marriage, specifically the female half of it. The musical is still caustic, but also in the light of current attitudes, more self-consciously nasty toward that venerable institution. Perhaps Furth’s idea of watching a despairing 35 year-old bachelor in pursuit of his own happiness while remaining a lap dog for his closest friends – five unhappily married couples – doesn’t (or isn’t meant to) project optimism, but it remains a deft and recognizable device.
Raul Esparza, the dynamic young actor who made great impressions in such not so great shows as Taboo and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , plays Robert, whose tainted attitudes about attachment and commitment to women, and specifically to his three concurrent girl friends, appear the direct result of observing his friends’ disintegrating relationships. Esparza delivers the insecurities of his character with a brio and confidence that also drives his two big songs “Marry Me a Little” (not in the original show, but restored here as it was in the earlier revival) and “Being Alive.” Pivotal as he is, Robert often stands at the outside of his friends’ lives as they are revealed in a series of skittish skits.
Sardonic in the extreme, each skit depicts these adults in their various states of disharmony. But what these skits really depict is the unequivocal substance of 15 almost equally great songs. If Doyle’s direction does anything, it puts a resolutely semi-detached element into the show’s structure without neutralizing its integrated moments. There is enough theatrical savvy at work and an excellent enough company on hand to create an exhilarating experience.
A rather zaftig Heather Laws, who also comes equipped with a French Horn, trumpet and flute, comes the closest to stopping the show in its tracks with her motor-mouthed rendition of “Getting Married Today.” The women in Robert’s life are, as to be expected, amusingly diverse. Between fiddling or tooting on something, the charmingly sexy Angel Desai, as Marta, sashays around in her mini-skirt and winningly pelts out the rapidly-fired tongue-twister “Another Hundred People.” Elizabeth Stanley demonstrates her proficiency on the Oboe, Tuba and Alto Sax, as April, the ditsy airlines stewardess who sings “Barcelona.” Kelly Jeanne Grant, an exceptionally pretty redhead plays Kathy and makes a good case for leaving New York and heading back to old Cape Cod. Each wielding a saxophone, Desai, Stanley and Grant combine their talents for the concerted “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” one of the musical’s many highlights.
Among the couples, Larry (Keith Buterbaugh) and Sarah (Kristin Huffman) make their dieting and cheating, going on and off the wagon, karate chopping demonstration consistently combative. The latter is humorously staged with each combatant standing far apart from each other. Peter (Matt Castle) and Susan (Amy Justman) delightfully discover the joy of being married only after their divorce. It’s not quite such a bed of roses for David (Fred Rose) when Jenny (Leenya Rideout) gets potted and loses her inhibitions. Barbara Walsh hones the bitter side of thrice-married Joanne to a fine edge and earned the approval she gets for her venomously delivered “Ladies Who Lunch.” But how her decent tolerant husband Larry (Bruce Sabath) could stand her for a minute defies belief.
The exuberantly staged “Side By Side,” features the company singing and parading with their instruments in tow and is quite as exhilarating as anything professor Harold Hill might have conjured up for his seventy-six trombonists. Set Designer David Gallo hasn’t employed much décor other than different sized strategically placed Plexiglas cubes around the stage. A tall Greek-column at center stage; a piano and plenty of chairs for the performers dressed in concert-style black (by costume designer Ann Hould-Ward) complete the picture, all enhanced by Thomas C. Hase’s superb lighting.
In its favor, Company does not appear terribly dated despite its noticeably 1970s style smirks and smarts and prominent pessimism. Best of all, Doyle keeps faith with the musical’s nervous, schematic format. Even so we still cringe a little at the abrasive theme and mostly unsympathetic characters. Yet there is no denying it is “The Little Things You Do Together,” that make this musical undeniable special and unique.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street