Sondheim’s ‘Company’ in New York

April 29, 2011

Stephen Sondheim, “Company” : Paul Gemignani (conductor), Lonny Price (director), Josh Rhodes (choreographer), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 8.4.2011 (BH)

Company

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Conducted by Paul Gemignani
Directed by Lonny Price
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
Co-produced by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Peter: Craig Bierko
Harry: Stephen Colbert
David: Jon Cryer
Amy: Katie Finneran
Robert: Neil Patrick Harris
April: Christina Hendricks
Paul: Aaron Lazar
Joanne: Patti LuPone
Susan: Jill Paice
Sarah: Martha Plimpton
Marta: Anika Noni Rose
Jenny: Jennifer Laura Thompson
Larry: Jim Walton
Kathy: Chryssie Whitehead

The Vocal Minority: Alexa Green, Fred Inkley, Rob Lorey, Jessica Vosk
Ensemble: Callie Carter, Ariana DeBose, Sean Ewing, Ashley Fitzgerald, Lorin Latarro, Lee Wilkins

What forty years will do. In 1970, Company all but smacked Broadway in the face, figuratively speaking, offering a bracing new idea of what a musical could be. After testing the waters with groundbreaking creations like Anyone Can Whistle and Evening Primrose, Stephen Sondheim pushed the dramatic envelope even further with this acerbic take on relationships, using sketches developed by George Furth about the five married couples and three girlfriends who orbit around their single pal, Robert (Neil Patrick Harris). Having seen the show several times over the years and now this effort, I’m trying to imagine how to best stage it, given its dilemmas. It’s a show in search of a nexus, despite Robert’s attempts to provide one (or be one). The other problem is that the music-to-drama ratio is smaller than one might expect, considering the billing as a “musical.” The three-hour show is packed with talk (some might say dated psychological-speak), which may disappoint those hoping for a song-and-dance barnburner every ten minutes. A director faces the challenge of finding singers who can dance – and who can really act.

All this is to say that the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged version of the show had its moments – more than a few – but somehow never seemed to quite gel into a whole. (I saw the second of four performances; the latter two may have been better.) By far the biggest pleasure was hearing the score itself, tautly conducted by Paul Gemignani, using expanded orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. In an age of Broadway skimping on musicians to save costs, it felt like unabashed luxury to hear this show’s classic numbers belted out with an ensemble of 50 or 60. The bubbling woodwinds in “Another Hundred People,” the raucous brass in “Side by Side by Side (What Would We Do Without You?),” the whirring strings of “Have I Got a Girl for You,” and above all, the blazing choruses of the title song – all were more thrilling with an orchestra this size, and as if it needs to be said, of this caliber.

But scene after scene seemed hesitant, as if the cast were still trying to make the most of their instructions from director Lonny Price. Yes, the opening skit with Martha Plimpton (Sarah) practicing karate on Stephen Colbert (as Harry) got deserved laughs, as did Patti LuPone (Joanne) leading the cast in the wry observations of “Little Things.” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” the ticklish trio that might be the catchiest number of all, deployed Christina Hendricks (as April), Chryssie Whitehead (Kathy) and Anika Noni Rose (Marta) – all good singers, but the overall effect was slightly subdued. The equally word-packed “Getting Married Today” had the delightful Katie Finneran (as Amy, the chattering bride-to-be), Aaron Lazar (her puzzled fiancé Paul), and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Jenny, playing a minister), but the parts never came together in a way that can have an audience howling with delight.

Most of the high points came in Act II, starting with a brilliant peak: “Side by Side by Side,” with Mr. Harris leading a broadly paced vaudeville (choreographed by Josh Rhodes) that all but brought the house down. Ms. LuPone delivered a searing, drunken “The Ladies Who Lunch,” giving Elaine Stritch’s indelible delivery a run for its money. But in the climactic anthem, “Being Alive,” although Mr. Harris sang with passion, the point to be made – that Robert has finally had a breakthrough in his emotional development – didn’t come through as the hard-won core of the evening. Virtually all of the other members of the cast were very good: Craig Bierko (Peter), Jon Cryer (David), Jill Paice (Susan), and Jim Walton (Larry), but this is a more difficult show than it may appear at first, and not only in terms of navigating Sondheim’s caustic words and music. Company walks a fine line between being sheerly entertaining, while digging deep into those emotions that make us human. It’s tough to sustain both – to find actors who can mine Sondheim’s subterranean implications – and this well-intentioned venture fell a bit short of the mark.

Bruce Hodges

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