Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Company Next Week

Stephen Sondheim has a reputation as Broadway’s most challenging composer, but his work has proved remarkably accessible and pliant in recent years. Last year, Tim Burton compellingly adapted Sweeney Todd using a cast of actors with little vocal experience. On Broadway, director John Doyle has staged some unusual revivals of Sondheim, including Todd, and more recently the Tony Award winning Company, documented by Great Performances, and debuting on PBS stations next Wednesday, February 20th (you know, check local listings).

In staging Sondheim, Doyle has his troupe multi-tasking in the extreme. In addition to their traditional acting and singing roles, they also serve as their own pit orchestra, playing each instrument from the stage (see clip embedded below). It is an unusual effect, but Company lends itself to Doyle’s approach, with its abstract sets and situations.

To an uncharitable eye, Company would seem to simply be the story (or Seinfeldian non-story) of Robert, a Manhattan commitment-phobe with a group of annoying married friends, who seems to spend a lot of time standing on his furniture and sabotaging his romances. However, George Furth’s book is a brutally frank examination of relationships. Sometimes his words induce wincing, as they often hit raw nerves. Some descriptions compare Company to Sex in the City, but the writing is far superior, refusing to sugar-coat its uncomfortable situations.

Raúl Esparza as Robert, or Bobby, Rob, and Bubby-Baby, as he is variously called, is the key to the show. Always on stage, he has to appear emotionally detached, but suggest something is going on deep beneath the surface. In the song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” his girlfriends sing: “you impersonate a person better than a zombie should.” Yet at the end of each act, Esparza has to deliver a revealing show-stopper, which he does convincingly. Esparza is in great voice throughout, and his performances of “Marry Me A Little” makes one wonder why the song has not become more of a standard.

Sondheim won the Tony for both best score and lyrics when Company debuted on Broadway in 1970, and it might be his best work for any show. Individually the songs are memorable, and there is a nice sense of variety within the show (Angel Desai’s “Another Hundred People” being another highlight). Undoubtedly the best known song would be “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which Elaine Stritch debuted. Later renditions have played down the sarcasm of the lyrics, but not here. Channeling Stritch in the role of Joanne, Barbara Walsh’s version of the toast almost borders on the abrasive.

The cast all have strong voices and happily hold their own as musicians. (Again, Company deserved the Best Show Album Grammy far more than Spring Awakening.) While the music is great and there are some nice comic touches, some viewers might have difficulty with the ambiguous nature of the show. It is not a dumbed-down Disney production.

It is a happy development that people around the country will have this chance to see it on GP. Commentators on NY1’s On-Stage have bemoaned the disappearance of recorded theater on television and it is a fair point. The combination of Doyle’s unique staging, Sondheim’s music and Esparza’s performance make this a very memorable show, and an effective corrective for the syrupy sentimentality of lesser Broadway shows. It airs a week from today, February 20th, at 9:00 pm (here in New York on WNET 13).