By Jeff Walsh
Going into "Company," I had a lot of questions running around my head. Chief among them was: How can I be a theater queen and only now be seeing my first Sondheim show? When I looked in the Playbill, I was surprised how many of the show's musical numbers sounded familiar. Even though I hadn't been to a proper Sondheim production before, I've been to enough piano bars, cabarets, and Elaine Stritch one-woman shows to ensure more than half of the songs were known quantities.
The other pre-curtain pondering was about director John Doyle's staging, whereby there would be no orchestra (repeating the formula he recently used for his restaging of Sweeney Todd). The actors all play instruments onstage to accompany themselves and others during the songs. When I mentioned how this would be a strange hurdle to absorb, to a friend who isn't that fond of musicals, he said, "Oh yeah, unlike them all breaking into song randomly..." Point taken.
Once the show started, though, most of these concerns disappeared. The show centers on Bobby (Raul Esparza, who came out in The New York Times prior to the show's opening), a bachelor in a world full of couples. He is constantly drinking his way through encounters with married friends, who enter the stage chanting his name with a funereal a cappella refrain, as they gather for his 35th birthday.
The show is more of a theme set to music, rather than an engaging musical. The songs are remembered in their staged glory, with a lot of drill-down detail, whereas what happens between them... eh, not as much. Of course, with a score like this, it barely ranks as criticism, as the show goes from one great song to the next.
Having never seen Company staged before, unlike the couple behind me who were seeing it for the ninth time since first seeing the original in the 70s, I can't comment on how anything is done differently in the revival, save for the actors playing their own instruments.
The dichotomy of the show is how everyone goes out of their way to include Bobby, yet he never seems like he is part of their world. His remains aloof with a sad-sack weariness and a lot of frustration under the surface. Most songs are sung to him, about him, but not with him. Even when he sings with the full company, he is usually standing on the piano, on a glass cube, but rarely (if ever) on their level. After he breaks down toward the end of Act Two, he finally stands on the stage with his friends and sings the show's signature song "Being Alive."
While all the songs were flawlessly performed, some of the best moments were Bobby being assaulted by three girls he's dating, all sporting saxophones, for "You Could Drive A Person Crazy," Marta (Angel Desai) singing "Another Hundred People" while poised atop the grand piano, Amy (Heather Laws) tossing out the tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" with a good helping of neurosis, and Joanne (Barbara Walsh, no relation) belting out the classic "Ladies Who Lunch."
Prior to seeing the show, I had heard a lot about Esparza and his fiery onstage presence, which isn't being utilized for this show. But he is the glue that keeps the show together. There seems to be a delicate balancing act in making the audience want him to get himself sorted out, but not giving us much to go on. And when he finally does let it all out, in a piercing scream that rattles through the theater, it was surprising, but also earned. He had slowly built us up to a place where we understood that he more going on under the hood than he was letting on through his aloof dialogue.
When he stood there singing "Being Alive," he was a lighter character than before. A weight had been lifted from him, and we felt better for him. Good music and catharsis? That's all I ever need from a night out at the theater.
Company is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th. Tickets available through Telecharge (there were also 50% off discount tickets available at TKTS when I was visiting).