“Company” is perfectly timed, sadly. Opening less than two weeks after the death of Stephen Sondheim at the age of 91, in a season delayed by more than a year and a half by the worldwide pandemic, this fourth Broadway revival of his 1970 musical couldn’t help but be emotional, thrilling, overwhelming.
It is also, as it turns out, sublimely entertaining.
The show was a landmark achievement that launched Sondheim’s fruitful collaborations with Hal Prince as his director and Jonathan Tunick as his orchestrator, and began his peak years of groundbreaking musicals. It contains more than a dozen songs with among the cleverest lyrics in the history of musical theater. The score is exquisite. Sung on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater by the 20-member cast, and performed above the stage by a 15-piece orchestra, the music is as pleasing for its complexity as for its melodies. But it is no accident that several of the tunes are standard cabaret fare, and not just in Sondheim revues: ‘The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Side by Side by Side,” “Being Alive.”
The production, an import from England directed by Marianne Elliott, cannot be called definitive. Its most attention-getting feature is the switching of the genders of several of the characters, which at its best feels like an interesting thought experiment about the difference in our attitudes towards men and women. Even when the gender switching feels less than completely thought out, the musical proves to be sturdy enough to allow for such noodling around without undermining the essence of the show. It helps that this “Company” also showcases a company of some of the finest actors on Broadway, and several must-see performances – Patti LuPone, yes of course, but also Christopher Fitzgerald and Matt Doyle.
The jury may be deadlocked over the book by George Furth, a plotless series of vignettes that revolve around a main character, now a single woman named Bobbie, and the five couples who are her best friends. (The current script is a mix of various old drafts, plus a few lines never used before, also written by Furth, who died in 2008.) Whether or not theatergoers under the age of fifty can fully relate to the show’s 50-year-old view of marriage and relationships in New York City, the more abstract theme — the difficulty of interaction, but the impossibility of remaining alone (“alone is alone, not alive”) — takes on a new meaning in the middle of a pandemic. In any case, the truth is, Sondheim’s score holds up so well that “Company” would be fully satisfying even without any of the dialogue scenes. But the dialogue often weaves in and out of the lyrics, enhancing both, which is one of the signatures of this musical, and part of its appeal. Some of the non-musical scenes are also terrifically funny, and, besides that, offer more stage time for these performers to show off their acting chops beyond just their singing.
“Company” begins with Bobbie (Katrina Lenk) wrestling with a giant balloon that says “35” in her small box of an apartment. It’s a literal box, the first of many in Bunny Christie’s set design — boxes that slide upstage and downstage, stage left and stage right, competing as the main visual feature of the production with the giant neon letters “COMPANY,” which are moved around and sometimes rearranged in various scenes.
Bobbie listens to a series of birthday greetings from her friends on her answering machine. (This prompted for me a nit-picking question about whether the show is supposed to be taking place in 1970 or 2021: Would friends leave messages on Bobbie’s answering machine now, rather than texting or emailing?)
They are planning a party for her on her 35th birthday. Several scenes with different versions of that same birthday party pop up throughout the show, the clearest indication that this is not a linear narrative. Bobbie visits the couples one by one, and interacts with each of three dates.
Bobbie, of course, was originally Bobby. His three female dates, April, Kathy and Marta, have become her three male dates, Andy, Theo and PJ who together sing in Andrews Sister-like harmony, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”
Instead of the lyrics:
“So single and attentive and attractive a man
Is everything a person could wish
But turning off a person is the act of a man
Who likes to pull the hooks out of fish”
“man” becomes “chick” in the first and third lines.
This made me wonder: Would guys in their thirties who call women “chicks” be so exasperated that Bobbie doesn’t want to marry them?
It’s the kind of question that hangs over each of the individual scenes with these three men: Is this the way men would act? Manu Narayan is Theo, who has a scene with Bobbie telling her he’s tired of New York City, and is moving back home in order to get married. Bobby Conte, as PJ, a self-absorbed character who looks like a kind of he-man hippy, sings “Another Hundred People.” Claybourne Elder is Andy, a ditzy, dumb flight attendant, who beds with Bobbie rather spectacularly — the orchestral “Tick Tock” is here accompanied not by a dance, as in the original, but by an odd mime show, almost performance art, of red-dressed women, and towel-wrapped men, repeatedly filing in and out of Bobbie’s bedroom and bathroom, as if picturing a day-after-day future that’s not going to happen. Bobbie and Andy then duet with the funny and tuneful “Barcelona.” Bobbie doesn’t remember Andy’s name, calling him Randy, which is perfect considering they’ve just had sex. (In the original, Bobby thought April’s name was June.)
The genders have not been switched in most of the couples (although three of them are now interracial; since nothing is made of this, it seems simply an example of color-blind casting.) But instead of the husbands singing “Have I Got A Girl For You,” the wives sing “Have I Got a Guy For You”
In the original, the men are Bobby’s buddies, who not-so-secretly envy his bachelor status, living it vicariously. The situation has become more unusual now that their “buddy” is Bobbie. Do they feel no sexual attraction, or at least sexual tension, with this beautiful woman? The question intensifies when in the song, “Someone is Waiting,” Bobbie pictures her ideal mate as a composite of her men friends (just as Bobby had of his women friends):
“Someone is waiting,
Cute as Jamie,
Sassy as Harry
And tender as Paul…
…A Peter sort of Larry,
A David kind of Paul,
Wait for me! I’m ready now! If you exist at all … “
There are noteworthy changes in two of the couples. In Bobbie’s scene smoking marijuana with the couple David and Jenny (Christopher Fitzgerald and Nikki Renee Daniels), it’s now David (not Jenny) who is the “registered square” who’s getting high for the first time – and thank god for that, because Christopher Fitzgerald’s physical comedy while his reality adjusts on Maui Wowie makes this one of the most memorable stage moments of the year.
The biggest change in the couples, and the most radical alteration in the production, is that Amy and Paul have become Jamie and Paul (Matt Doyle and Etai Benson) – two men. Bobbie is maid of honor at their wedding (That solved one question: The show is definitely not set in 1970.) Matt Doyle has the breakout moment of his career so far as the reluctant (neurotic) groom singing like a speed reader in “Getting Married Today” — with Benson and Daniels as the priest serving up a grand, and grandly amusing, counterpoint.
But the old boring heterosexual couples certainly hold their own.
Christopher Sieber and Jennifer Simard as Harry and Sarah, the first couple we meet, taunt one another – she about his drinking; he about her diet — and are so competitive with one another that they actually start wrestling each other during Bobbie’s visit. This leads to the lively and hilarious “The Little Things You Do Together,” with Patti LuPone singing the first few stanzas solo
It’s the little things you share together,
That make perfect relationships.
The concerts you enjoy together,
Neighbors you annoy together,
Children you destroy together,
That keep marriage intact.
before she’s joined by the whole company. This is immediately followed by Bobbie asking Harry “You ever sorry you got married?” and Harry answering with lovely and beautiful song “Sorry/Grateful”
You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful,
You’re always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in.
This glorious one-two punch is ultimately one-upped by the two back-to-back showstoppers that close “Company,” LuPone as Joanne singing “Ladies Who Lunch,” and Lenk singing “Being Alive”
Although the part of Joanne was written with Elaine Stritch in mind, who originated the role and is still remembered for it, LuPone has become closely identified with Joanne’s song “Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s like her “Over the Rainbow.” We probably should be tired of it by now, but it never fails to wow. I’ll confess that Lenk had not made as much of an impression during the nearly three hours of the show as I had hoped – which is a disappointment especially given how splendid she was both in “Indecent” and her Tony-winning role in “The Band’s Visit”. In her defense, the character of Bobby/Bobbie is inherently bland, an observer. As Joanne tells her: “You’re always outside, knocking at the door while everybody is inside dancing at the party.” I’ve seen only one actor make anything of the role (Raul Esparza in the 2006 revival.)
But her last verses in her last song have a powerful resonance that transcends any single stage performance:
Somebody crowd me with love,
Somebody force me to care,
Somebody let me come through,
I’ll always be there
As frightened as you,
To help us survive
Being alive, being alive, being alive.
It’s as if she’s singing on our behalf, expressing our gratitude, directly to Stephen Sondheim.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission
Tickets: $59-$279 (general rush: $49)
Book by George Furth
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Choreographed by Liam Steel
Music orchestrated by David Cullen; Dance arrangements by Sam Davis;
Scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design by Ian Dickinson and Autograph; Hair and Wig Design and make-up design by Campbell Young Associates; Tattoo Designer: Andrew Sotomayor
Cast: Katrina Lenk, Patti LuPone, Matt Doyle, Christopher Fitzgerald, Manu Narayan, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Terence Archie, Etai Benson, Nikki Renée Daniels, Claybourne Elder, Greg Hildreth, Rashidra Scott, Bobby Conte Thornton, Kathryn Allison, Britney Coleman, Javier Ignacio, Anisha Nagarajan, Tally Sessions, Matt Wall