If there’s a better, more vital way to honor the late, incomparable Stephen Sondheim than Marianne Elliott’s superb production of Company, Broadway hasn’t invented it. This gorgeous revival of the Sondheim-George Furth masterwork at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is, from across-the-board excellent performances and thoughtful revisions to the visual delight of a lovely and ingeniously clever set design, a gift both to and from the genius we lost last month.
With its attention-getting gender-switching premise bringing a freshness and nuance that’s nothing short of near-miraculous for a much-revived 51-year-old musical, Elliott’s Company challenges Broadway’s current production of 1955’s Trouble in Mind as the most dizzying time-warp experience on stage this season. Like that Alice Childress play, this Company feels both absolutely of the moment and timeless.
Starring Katrina Lenk as the defiantly single Bobbie – in the original, of course, the bachelor Bobby, here one of the production’s re-gendered characters – and Patti LuPone in the born-to-play Ladies Who Lunch role of the jaded Joanne, Elliott’s Company is a non-stop showcase of splendid performances, sumptuous design (Bobbie’s jungle red pantsuit, for starters, along with the ever-changing neon that frames each vignette), all gliding into well-deserved spotlights on Bunny Christie’s intricately imagined set that owes debts to Mondrian, Alice in Wonderland and the offstage tech workers who sure each piece of the moveable, massive, gliding 3-D jigsaw falls into the right place at the exact moment. (A mishap during a recent preview, in which two pieces of scenery collided, was not repeated at the reviewed performance, though one plank-sized bit of siding stayed on the floor when it should have shuffled off, prompting a cast member to tote away the stranded item to considerable applause.)
The plot hasn’t been changed: On Bobbie’s 35th birthday, a group of her friends – all married or otherwise coupled – gather for a surprise party, an event the tipped-off Bobbie has no intention of joining. In a series of flashback vignettes, Bobbie encounters each of the couples and various other friends as she confronts the pluses and minuses of romantic commitment.
Bobbie’s resistance to pair up, though undeterred, is not free of more than a little guilt, fear, insecurity and doubt. As each vignette seems, on the surface, to reinforce Bobbie’s anti-commitment instinct, a slow realization sets in as to the costs of her avoidance.
Company‘s comedy – not to mention its very own hit parade – gets off to a strong start as Bobbie visits the weight-conscious, ever-dieting Sarah and her on-the-wagon alcoholic husband Harry (Jennifer Simard and Christopher Sieber), a seemingly sunny couple whose sublimated desires (of various sorts) unfold in a hilariously well-performed wrestling match. “It’s the little things you do together,” sings a Greek-chorus Joanne, observing the couple’s passive-aggressive insanity.
The scene evolves into Company‘s first great cri de coeur, that remarkable anthem to mixed feelings “Sorry-Grateful,” with Sieber leading the charge.
Next comes another comic gem, “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” the upbeat, fed-up song-and-dance number (choreographed to perfection by Liam Steel, contributing excellent work throughout) here performed by Bobbie’s three suitors (male, switched from the original’s females): the gorgeous if dim flight attendant Andy (Claybourne Elder), the rock & roll, New York-loving bohemian P.J. (Bobby Conte) and the homesick small-town nice guy Theo (Manu Narayan).
Everyone – the couples especially – is unhappy in their own way (and the rest of the Tolstoy reference applies as well). Peter (Greg Hildreth) and Susan (Rashidra Scott) find their greatest bliss in divorce, and the urbane, slightly trapped Jenny (Nikki Renée Daniels) and her sweet-tempered if a bit stodgy husband David (Christopher Fitzgerald) seem to the world the unlikeliest of fits.
As the coterie introduces itself, this Company delivers impeccable presentations of such Sondheim standards as (to name a few) “Another Hundred People,” “Marry Me A Little” and the rapid-fire, tongue-twisting marvel “Getting Married Today,” the latter so well sung (and so terrifically acted) by Matt Doyle that Company seems (deceptively) to have found its high point well before intermission. Again, Steel’s choreography and Christie’s set work in absolute sync with the music, turning the kitchen of the maybe-soon-to-be-wedded couple (Doyle’s terrified Jamie and Etai Benson’s doting Paul) into a puzzle box of secret doors and false fronts, as if the very heart of domesticity has been transformed into a nightmare of hidden traps and malicious intrusion.
That same physical versatility returns in full force with “Tick Tock,” the instrumental number in which the ensemble silently acts out Bobbie’s various imagined futures – the morning after an exciting sexual romp with the flight attendant repeats itself over and over into grinding routine, a pregnancy, a crying baby, all occur simultaneously as the cast moves and mingles with thrilling precision.
The pace lets up (if the precision doesn’t) with “Barcelona,” one of the score’s loveliest offerings, a post-coital duet in which flight attendant Andy and Bobbie engage in the stilted, forced small talk of a rumpled bed, a back-and-forth patter that showcases Sondheim’s genius for the flawlessly timed, deceptively simple and supremely well-chosen word. The build-up and payoff – a punchline, really – is a mini-musical in itself, among Company‘s most irresistible self-contained vignettes. The fact that it serves as an entree for what follows is just another wonder.
Because what follows is “The Ladies Who Lunch,” one of musical theater’s all-time great character studies, clever, sharp, funny and, in its sly way, heartbreaking. Indelibly linked to the original Joanne, Elaine Stritch, and forming the climax of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary about the making of the show’s cast album, “The Ladies Who Lunch” – in which the uber-sophisticated Joanne toasts the privileged, empty women later described by Truman Capote as high society’s swans – might seem to be a sure thing, slowly building its slinky, smoky nightclub vibe to a blow-the-rafters bellow of disdain, defiance and self-pity, a showcase for belters of a certain age all but guaranteed to bring down the house.
Or not. The song is so inextricably tied to Stritch – and that unforgettable documented performance – that subsequent interpretations have ever since run the risk of let-down, no matter how dramatically delivered. Not here. This is the role that has long been lying in wait for LuPone, and she knows it. She plays the scene – cocktail in hand, swaddled in fur, sharing a woman-to-woman heart-to-heart with Bobbie in a late-night bar – with the teasing, knowing confidence of a seen-it-all survivor, with a pinch of the barely disguised insecurity of someone who suspects she’s survived a little too long. When LuPone reaches the song’s frightening crescendo, her Joanne has provided Bobbie with a close-up demonstration of just exactly what life can do when it’s pretty much done with you, a vision perhaps more terrifying than anything Bobbie’s imagined in her previous encounters with the various couples. The fact that Joanne has a loving husband (played with charming self-assurance by Terence Archie) only amps up the chill for Bobbie: Imagine, she must think, what Joanne would be like alone in the world.
If Company is a reminder of Sondheim’s brilliance – not that we needed reminding – “Ladies Who Lunch” demonstrates yet again that LuPone is a theater concoction through and through, a treasure like Sondheim was a treasure, and she makes certain we don’t leave our seats without a true feeling of gratitude for sharing, after nearly two very crummy years, this time and space her.
Somehow, Company‘s not done with us yet. Bobbie is about to get the biggest of her big moments with perhaps the most effectively hopeful ode to potential happiness that Sondheim would ever write: “Being Alive,” the show’s 11 o’clock number that lets Bobbie crack her self-protective armor. “Somebody hold me too close/Somebody hurt me too deep,” she demands, “and ruin my sleep and make me aware of being alive.”
If Lenk doesn’t have LuPone’s vocal power, she nonetheless finds a way to her character-defining anthem, commanding a stage that’s no longer divided into boxes or Through the Looking Glass pathways. Bobbie, the production suggests, deserves this moment unburdened, and Lenk sees that she gets it. If there’s any comfort we can take in Sondheim’s recent passing, it’s that he saw this cast, directed by this director, on this set before he made his exit.