Seen and Heard

Seen on Broadway: Just when I'd wrapped my head around last season's radically rethought Sweeney Todd along comes a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, from the same director, John Doyle, and the same minimalist concept of having the performers play their instruments onstage. But all I know of Company, besides its legendary score (including "Another Hundred People" and "Side By Side By Side") is D.A. Pennebaker's 1970 documentary about the eventful recording of its original cast album. Without the baggage of a past staging to carry into the Ethel Barrymore Theatre I had a better and more simply enjoyable time at this show, though the relatively barren stage and the ghost-like way in which the characters reposition themselves atop and around the Plexiglas cubes that make up much of the set suggest a Company by way of Sondheim's haunted Follies. And the casting of Raul Esparza as Bobby, the third wheel on whom all the other, mostly coupled characters pivot, could not be improved upon. Unformed and unrealized, a human screen on whom the others project their own fears, misgivings, and fantasies, Bobby must be one of the hardest characters to realize in all musical theatre, but Esparza does so with captivating ease.

In its particulars, Company is dated-these days when 35 is the new 25, and for better or worse society accepts the notion of perpetually delayed adulthood, at least in New York, where the show (written by George Furth) is set. Bobby's single status, the subject on everyone's mind, is no big deal. But the show goes much deeper, into the undercurrent of regret and discontentment behind every "model" relationship, and there is a second-act discussion about homosexuality, which must have caused 1970's audiences to hold their collective breath, that is pleasantly non-judgmental even today. Doyle's highly concentrated staging compels puts across every nuance in the dialogue and score (helped by Andrew Keister's fine sound design) and there are numerous clever alternatives to whatever action there is in the book. Big picture-wise, the show has a birthday party setting, so having all the characters (save Bobby) play instruments makes a certain sense. Where the detailing is concerned, I liked how a karate match by a couple of silently warring partners is here mimed by the two characters placed on opposite ends of the stage, rather than having them try to actually go at it. The single Corinthian column that set designer David Gallo has added to his sleek, cubes-and-black-wall design is also well-used; in one scene, where Bobby's not-quite-girlfriend, the not-so-smart stewardess April (Elizabeth Stanley), admires an object in his apartment, the column has been lit an eye-catching yellow, by Thomas C. Hase. By the time their semi-relationship has broken up, at the end of the song "Barcelona," the column is a neutral, not-so-special white once more.

Making his Broadway debut, Hase is the designer who most prevents this Company from dissolving into radio. His illumination shows Ann Hould-Ward's elegant black-and-white costumes to their fullest advantage, and the transitions to bright colors are well-motivated and thrilling to experience (the lighting and the choreographed movements of the actors seem to be using the same cueing). I'd put the achievement on par with Ken Billington's lighting for the pared-down Chicago, high praise indeed. [Showman Fabricators built the scenery, with PRG providing the lights and Sound Associates the audio.] This fresh look at a Sondheim classic, seen first at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, doesn't always work; Joanne, the larger-than-life "The Ladies Who Lunch" character etched in vodka by Elaine Stritch in the original production, resists the back-to-basics reduction that marks the rest of the new staging, and as Barbara Walsh plays her comes off as a self-conscious cartoon. But when Esparza finally finds his instrument, and explodes into the closing song, "Being Alive," it's clear that whatever has been lost, this is a Company very much worth keeping.--Robert Cashill

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