Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: Stephen Sondheim's Company

[EDITED TO ADD:  It has been pointed out to me that I included a MAJOR SPOILER at the end of this review.  Oops.  I'm sorry.]

I have written about my passion for the work of Stephen Sondheim. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to see one of his seminal plays on stage -- sort of.

What I saw was the film of the production of Company performed with the New York Philharmonic, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti Lupone, Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton and others.  It was wonderful, and it reinforces again for me the difference between knowing musicals from their soundtracks and from seeing them live (or, in this case, quasi-live).*

Company was a startling work when it debuted. It seems less so now, since others have trod the path that it blazed, and some of the language and situations seem dated.  Nonetheless, it is an intellectually engaging and moving play.

Company is about a man coming to grips with his desire for and yet fear of making a deep commitment to anyone.  He views all of his friends' marriages and sees the flaws.  At the same time, he recognizes his own loneliness -- he is always "company," never with someone himself.  ("Side by Side by Side" notes that he has been seven times a godfather, but never a father.) He is an observer on the outside -- he can't even allow himself to have a single deep relationship: his three girlfriends have a number in the first act ("You Could Drive a Person Crazy") about his tendency to get a woman infatuated with him and then abandoning her.

The work has humorous and serious songs that show a deep understanding of human nature and the pitfalls of marriage.  "Sorry-Grateful" captures the mixed emotions that people feel towards those whom they love. "The Little Things You Do Together" is a humorously snarky look at some of the ways in which married couples share things and drift apart.  "Barcelona" demonstrates the danger of saying empty meaningless phrases to someone who may take them seriously.

The performances were wonderful.  Neil Patrick Harris did a lovely job projecting Robert's wistful loneliness.  I loved Stephen Colbert in the role of Harry:  his singing voice was merely adequate, but he is a surprisingly accomplished actor.  It would have been easy to play a cardboard cutout of a middle-aged boor, but he captured the character's underlying vulnerability and confusion.

Best of all was Patti Lupone.  She took a role completely identified with Elaine Stritch -- that was written for her, in fact -- and made it her own. Listening to the soundtrack, Stritch's Joanne sounds like a hard-bitten, tough broad.  On the other hand, Lupone played Joanne as a bitter alcoholic who seems like she must have once been a femme fatale, and who still retains some her former charms.  Her proposition to Robert near the end of the play resembles a less predatory version of Mrs. Robinson's  in The Graduate, until she reveals that she in fact has a different agenda in mind.

Lupone takes Joanne's signature number, "Ladies Who Lunch," and wisely does not try to mimic Stritch's delivery. Stritch's Joanne seems angry and sardonic, while Lupone's Joanne comes across as bitter and deeply wounded.  Where Stritch, in keeping with her usual style, sings clipped phrases, Lupone lengthens them, making them more melodic. Perhaps paradoxically, this does not soften the song, but underscores the difference between Joanne's confidently feminine exterior and her seeming inner self-loathing.

All in all, it was a wonderful show.  It was, as Sondheim often is, full of subtext and without an easy resolution.  As the Rocket Scientist noted when we were leaving, you don't know what happens to Robert -- does he find someone and settle down? -- or his friends. The play just... ends.  There is no happy ending -- arguably, there is no ending at all. 

Sondheim once said that his intention was to leave the audience screaming with laughter for two hours, and then have them go home and be unable to sleep.  With Company, he succeeds brilliantly.

*I really wish there were more productions like this.  With the Met showing operas in theaters, there is no reason not to have them; such productions would provide an excellent means to bring works to people who will never have an opportunity to see them live.

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