Company - Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theatre in Washington, D.C. - June 15, 2002

I find this a very difficult review to write, for reasons that will probably become clear very shortly. It's not that I don't feel I have plenty to say about Company, because I most certainly do, and it's not that I don't have strong feelings about it--I have strong feelings about most everything I see. Rather, I question my qualifications in accurately judging a show of this particular subject matter. So, I'm going to put that off for now.

So, instead, I'll start by discussing what I feel more comfortable in doing--discussing the show as a show. I suppose it goes without saying that Stephen Sondheim's score is top-notch. I have to admit that I possess little more than a basic familiarity with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so I don't feel right drawing comparisons there, but Company is really an excellent musical comedy score. (Well, as close to musical comedy as 1970s Sondheim could get!) Such wonderful, energetic numbers. His lyrics and his music suit each other perfectly here--I don't think they always do. I think, in some of his other works, he strove too hard to be complex or unusual and forgot to just let the material speak for itself. Not here. The score is one enormous, delightful parade of great numbers. I mean, look:

How many shows have scores like this? It's astonishing, really to look at the big songs, but even the smaller songs revel in their exalted company and feel bigger by comparison. "Sorry-Grateful," "Have I Got a Girl For You," "Someone is Waiting," and "Barcelona" are all strong, vital songs as well. It's an accomplished score, unquestionably one of Sondheim's best, as far as I'm concerned. (I probably don't need to mention that the score, under the musical direction of its orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, sounded great in the theater.)

Then the book. Well, the book doesn't quite live up to the score--how many could? I realize that George Furth's work was the impetus for the show in the first place, and that's all well and good, but the thing about the book and the score is how well they really do work together. The book is very episodic, yes, and the individual characters and scenes don't always have much to do with each other. But each of the scenes makes its points about the pitfalls and the promise of marriage and commitment clearly, concisely, and almost always entertainingly. What more could one ask for?

A good production perhaps? Fine. I say this production had that, too. The set (by Derek McLane) was a top-down view of the New York skyline, with the space in between the buildings the playground for Howell Binkley's lights and Michael Clark's projections of busy city life, traffic, or additional scenic elements if necessary. The show had a visual feeling both wide and deep, both confining and expansive. Perfect for the show. Sean Mathis, the director, had some strong ideas that I did think played well. Jodi Moccia's choreography may have been a bit underpowered at times, but, like Catherine Zuber's costumes, suggested the 1970s without hitting you over the head with them.

So, we have a great score, a good book, lots of fine production elements, what does that leave? The cast. Well, there the problem starts.

I have to get this out of the way. John Barrowman is a fantastic singer. Really. No two ways about it, he has a tremendously agile voice without any sort of a break I could distinguish, and, with the possible exception of Norm Lewis, I can't imagine there has ever been a better sung Robert. But, despite what anyone tells you, singing is simply not the most important thing in a musical. Barrowman didn't understand Robert, he didn't get inside him, he didn't explain him to me. He was going through the acting paces. He played indifference, amusement, or confusion well, but Robert needs more than that. He's undertaking a major journey in the show, and he needs to have the major epiphany in "Being Alive" that allows the entire story to make sense. Otherwise, what was the purpose of the show? "Being Alive" was Barrowman demonstrating what a great voice he had. For me, that was far from enough. What made Robert tick all the way through, I couldn't begin to tell you. Without a strong Robert, Company is going to falter, and Barrowman was this production's first, and perhaps most significant, misstep.

The rest of the cast was less damaging, but far from scintillating. Some of them were strong. Lynn Redgrave I rather liked, and yes, I know I'm in the minority. I was always aware of her acting, but she was funny (some of the best material helped), and I enjoyed watching her. After seeing Elaine Stritch At Liberty, it's impossible to find another person capable of really doing "The Ladies Who Lunch" the same way, but Redgrave made it her own and made it mostly work. David Pittu, as Harry (one of the wrestlers and the lead "Sorry-Grateful" singer) was strong--understated and adult. Wise, which helped. Walter Charles was Larry, the husband of Joanne (Redgrave), and fine. I also happened to like Kim Director's particularly ditzy take on April, the airline stewardess Robert beds during the second act. I thought she did vacant very well, but perhaps I should keep further comments to myself!

The rest of the cast was much more problematic. I understand Matt Bogart isn't gay, but, boy, he was flaming as Paul. And it was tremendously distracting. And I don't think it worked. If it was Bogart's choice, an unfortunate trick of the costumes, or if it's just the way Bogart reads onstage, I don't care, it was bad. Bad bad bad. Scary, really. His Amy was Alice Ripley. Now, she's a very touch-and-go performer. Great in Side Show, but out of her element in The Rocky Horror Show, and I did not like her in this. Really, not at all. As I mentioned to someone last night, "Getting Married Today" is a fabulous song. But if you have a woman with some good sense of comedic timing in that role, and who can nail the rapid-fire words, it's going to stop the show almost regardless of what else happens. And with Ripley, not much else happens. Her nervousness seemed far too affected to me, too stagey, not at all real. (Then again, she played her main scene opposite Bogart and Barrowman, so she could have been Uta Hagen and it wouldn't have mattered.) For me, that--and the overly busy staging of the number--sank the song, sank the scene, and sank the end of the first act, when that just can't happen. And yet, the audience went nuts over the song? They loved it, and they seemed to love her. Was I missing something?

I sure thought so after "Another Hundred People." Same type of thing. Great song. Absolutely wonderful, meaningful, moving, memorable. Anyone who can do it (and does) has it made. And Marcy Harriell did. But... well, so what? As with Ripley, it seemed a case of doing the minimum necessary to put the song across. The dramatic underpinnings of the song were completely absent, and Harriell sang it decently, but not spectacularly. She brought nothing new to the character of Marta (and I found her "big scene" rather embarrassing and boring--she was working way too hard for something that was simply never going to come). Yet, the audience decided to let that song stop the show. The applause went on for a long time. A really, really long time. She was just standing there, trying to find a way to let the show move on, but the audience wouldn't let it. Again, was I missing out on something that the other 1099 or so people there understood? Was Harriell really the next big thing, a huge star being made in front of my eyes?

I still don't think so. I have another explanation, but not a pretty one, and one I have no way to back up. But I think people in the audience that Saturday evening were so excited and enthused about seeing a high-calibre production of a Stephen Sondheim musical with great songs being conducted by Jonathan Tunick that they had to make their approval for the experience itself be felt. And so they did. These people loved Sondheim and many of them probably loved Company, just not necessarily this one. They would not let it fail, so it couldn't fail, and, for them, it did not. They weren't going to let little things bother them. Little things like adequate but not outstanding performers, or cutting a song.

Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yes, "Tick Tock" was not in the production. The dance number that Donna McKechnie introduced (apparently spectacularly) in the original Broadway production. You know, the one devoted to exploring the ideas between meaningless sex and relationships and making love and long-term commitment? You know, only the themes on which Company is based. Yeah, it's not important at all! I can't say much about the production's Kathy (Elizabeth Zins)--I liked what little I saw of her, and while I'm sure she can't dance as well as Donna McKechnie did then (I'll bet you can count on one hand the number of people who can!), could they not have done something rather than nothing?

Regardless, the audience loved the show. I did not. I didn't hate it, but I didn't lose my mind over it the way almost everyone else there did. I think, after some reflection, I have a couple of possible answers. The first is perhaps the most obvious--I had no personal stake in the show. At that point, I hadn't seen most of Sondheim's musicals performed live. I had no history with the show beyond the libretto and the cast album, nothing that was going to make this a watershed event of any sort in my life. I couldn't relive my youth through the show--I hadn't even been born when the show opened on Broadway. So, I was examining it through somewhat fresh eyes, and was more willing (or perhaps able) to view the show objectively.

But I'm also not going to rule out what is perhaps an even more likely personality. As of this writing, there is much in life that I still have to experience, many goals I still need to accomplish. And... well... in the romantic and sexual areas, my experience can best be described as slim to none. Company, in telling of its story of the just-35-year-old Robert struggling to commit, aims itself squarely at people with a certain history and who have certain paths before them. My history is more or less a blank slate, my future in this area far more uncertain than most at my age (or most, perhaps). All of this has the unfortunate cumulative effect of aiming the show beyond what I can reasonably interpret. I can extrapolate, I can envision, I can estimate, but there is almost nothing in Company that I can relate to an actual experience in my life. It's entirely possible that, when I'm 35, I could find myself in Robert's position, but I don't now. So, if the show is as peppered with in-jokes about relationships as I suspect, I'm at a marked disadvantage. Most theatre audiences, especially for shows of this nature, do tend to the older side, and even more "middle-aged" people would be able to relate to the characters and situations far better than I could.

So, this is one case where I am willing to concede that the show may just have been beyond me. It could easily have been a superb production with a top-notch cast who was selling everything the most it could possibly be sold, but I wasn't buying it simply because I wasn't in the store (or didn't know there was a sale--look at it however you like). But, whatever the reason was this production of Company didn't touch me, didn't strike me, and didn't affect me, the fact remains it simply didn't do any of those things. So, I can't consider it successful as a theatre experience.

But, well, it got me thinking about a lot of things, particularly those mentioned in the last couple of paragraphs, so... well... That's something at least, and still more than some shows.

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