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A CurtainUp Review

Why would you get married?—Joanne
Oh, for the company—Bobby

Somebody, crowd me with love,
Somebody, force me to care,
Somebody, make me come through.
I'll always be there as frightened as you,
To help us survive
— Bobby, as he finally stops being a by-stander in "Being Alive."

The Men  in Company
L to R: Matt Castle as Peter, Bruce Sabath as Larry, Raúl Esparza as Robert, Keith Buterbaugh as Harry, Fred Rose as David (Photo: Paul Kolnick)
L to R: Elizabeth Stanley as April, Kelly Jeanne Grant as Kathy and Angel Desai as Marta
(Photo: Paul Kolnick)
There's a lyric in one of Company's songs, "Sorry-Grateful", that perfectly describes the miracle of John Doyle's sublime revival of Stephen Sondheim's groundbreaking, multi-award winning 1970 musical: "Everything's different,/ Nothing's changed,/Only maybe slightly/Rearranged."

Typical of Company's songs and dialogue, "Sorry-Grateful" focuses on friendships and relationships. But by making the commitment shy Robert and his married friends and would-be wives multi-task as the musicians as well as the actor-singers, this British director has brought something fresh and different to the show while keeping a firm hold on the gorgeous score, scintillating lyrics and illuminating dialogue.

Perhaps it's a bit more than "slightly rearranged" but then this Company is also not just slightly new again but exhilaratingly fresh, its newness boosting our appreciation of its depth and enduring sparkle. — just as Sondheim invigorated and expanded the musical genre by using songs to comment on rather than advance the story line. The anecdotes supplied by George Furth added a plot of sorts via scenes with the married friends who give Robert mixed messages about wedded bliss— proseletizing for the Noah's ark life style even as they display more than a few signs of trouble in their "Side By Side" lives. The Sondheim songs and Furth story make for something portmanteau word lovers might dubl a book-revue.

This very intimate and novel production releases Company from its time capsule as a musical reflecting the late 60s and early 70s. Following in the footsteps of last year's acclaimed Sondheim-à-la-Doyle production of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, it seemed to invite accusations that the actor-musician casting was a way to capitalize on a money saving gimmick that turned into gold. (Doyle actually pioneered this style with several other shows in his tight budget Watermille Theatre in the U.K. but the spotlight came with the Sweeney Todd production).

Now that I've seen Company, I can assure you that Doyle's method is not a flash in the pan. Not that I didn't like previous more traditional versions or that I'm suggesting that all actors with musical theater ambitions should immediately brush up on their piano, violin, cello or other childhood instrument lessons and that pit musicians should look around for new careers. Their ranks may be downsized, but the musical with an orchestra or separate combo will hopefully be with us for a long time to come. However, Mr. Doyle's approach to working with actors as his orchestra is unique. And since Company was never a show calling for detailed, complicated sets and costumes, the instruments serve not only the music, but as scenic and character enhancing props.

The marriage of the actor-singer's role with the instrumentalist's (marriage does have a way of popping into one's mind in this marriage-minded show) actually accentuates Robert's separateness from the friends celebrating his birthday. Even as he is the center of the action, he is a by-stander by virtue of his inability and/or unwillingness to test the marital waters. This is underscored by his not playing an instrument until he finally gives in to his emotional neediness and accompanies himself on the piano as he sings the moving finale, "Being Alive." Whether a loner surrounded by friends, Esparaza is definitely a Robbie to remember, a sure-fire contender for a best actor in a musical Tony.

The instruments intermittently dragged and wheeled around the stage also serve as concrete illustrations of the emotional baggage with which the characters are burdened. As smartly orchestrated by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the instruments, like the character, also talk to and argue with each other. Fortunately, the actors, all of whom appeared in the show's premiere production at the Cincinnati Playhouse, are all fine and versatile musicians.

As Ann Hould-Ward has dressed everyone in black but with piquant variations, so the performances have enough depth and variety to individualize each character. Esparza's initial cool, detached portrayal of Robert makes his "Being Alive" resonate that much more powerfully. The whole cast's vocal instruments also do justice to the songs.

One of the show's comic high spots, "Getting Married Today", is delightful as ever, with Heather Laws leading this distinctly Sondheimian wedding march. Any performer taking on the role of Joanne, must contend with the shadow of Elaine Stritch's Joanna, especially her rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch." However, Barbara Walsh invests the role, and the song, with her own brand of brassy sophistication.

The briefly raised issue of Bobby's sexual identity, reminded me of a recently reviewed new comedy by Paul Rudnick about various marital issues. While No Regrets ( review) has lots of amusing one-liners none are the sort that would really hold up out of context, a weakness not applicable to either Sondheim's lyrics or Furth's spoken dialogue; for example, this Furth one liner, a comeback from one of Robert's friends to his nonchalantly expressed devotion to the old mantra about putting off marriage in order to try and do everything rather than to live an unexamined life: "The unlived life is not worth examining."

A hats off is also in order for David Gallo's sleekly abstract set with a Greek column intriguingly circled by white radiators at its center, Thomas C. Hase's subtle lighting and David Lawrence's hair and wig design that complements Ann Hould-Ward's costumes. To conclude a paraphrase from " Being Alive" — John Doyle and his team's Company will force you to care/ to help the show survive/ and feel alive, alive, alive.

Whether the actors accompany themselves or not, Company is always worth seeing, and for Sondheim's many fans a must see whether on or off-Broadway or in a regional venue, like our last sighting of Company at Barrington Stage

Our review of the Doyle directed Sweeney Todd.

See the end of the production notes below for some background on the show's awards and history.

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: John Doyle'
Cast: Keith Buterbaugh (Harry/trumpet, trombone), Matt Castle (Peter/piano, keyboards, double bass), Robert Cunningham (Paul/trumpet, drums), Angel Desai (Marta/keyboard, viola, alto sax), Raúl Esparza (Bobby/percussion), Kelly Jeanne Grant (Kathy/flute, alto sax), Kristin Huffman (Sarah/flute, alto sax, piccolo), Amy Justman (Susan/piano, keyboards, orchestra bells), Heather Laws (Amy/French horn, trumpet, flute), Leenya Rideout (Jenny/violin, guitar, double bass), Fred Rose (David/cello, alto sax, tenor sax), Bruce Sabath (Larry/clarinet, drums), Elizabeth Stanley (April/oboe, tuba, alto sax) and Barbara Walsh (Joanne/orchestra bells, percussion).
Musical direction and orchestrations: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Sets: David Gallo
Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward
Wigs and Hair Design: David Lawrence
Lights: Thomas C. Hase
Sound: Andrew Keister
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Ethel Barrymore, 243 W. 47th St.(Broadway/8th Av) 212/239-6200
From 10/30/06; opening 11/29/06.
Monday to Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm; beginning December 4: Tuesday @ 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Tickets: $111 to 101.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 26th press performance
Just 2 days after the Tony ceremonies (where Company won for best musical revival), the producers announced that the show would close 7/01/07 after 34 previews and 247 performances.

Some Background Information:
Company won the New York Drama Critics' Award as Best Musical and six Tony awards: Best Musical, Best Music, Best Lyrics (these were Sondheim's first awards of his career), Best Book, Best Director, Best Scenic Design. It played 705 performances at the Alvin Theatre (4/26/1970 - 1/1/1972)
Donna McKechnie who went on to be the lead in Chorus Line played Kathy & Elaine Stritch Joanne
While much revived, the 1995 Broadway revival by the Roundabout at itsCriterion Center Stage was not a success, running for just 60 performances despite a stellar cast that included Boyd Gaines as Robert, Veanne Cox as Amy, Charlotte d'Ambrose as Kathy, Jane Krakowski as April and Debra Monk as Joanne

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Company/ Robert & Company
  • The Little Things You Do Together/ Joanne & Company
  • Sorry-Grateful/ Harry, David, Larry
  • You Could Drive a PersonCrazy/ April, Marta, Kathy
  • Have I Got A Girl For You /Larry, Peter, Paul, David Harry
  • Someone Is Waiting/Robert
  • Another Hundred People/ Marta
  • Getting Married Today Amy, Paul, Susan & Company
  • Marry Me a Little/ Robert
Act Two
  • Side By Side By Side/ Robert & Company
  • What Would We Do Without You / Robert & Company
  • Poor Baby/ Sarah, Jenny, Susan, Amy, Joanne
  • Barcelona/Robert, April
  • The Ladies Who Lunch/Joanne
  • Being Alive/ Robert
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