“You know what the pulse of the city is?” “A busy signal?” This exchange, between uptight free spirit Marta and confirmed bachelor Robert, perfectly encapsulates the experience that is the New York Philharmonic concert of Company, performing through Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
A busy signal, for those of you who weren’t yet born in, or don’t remember, the age before cell phones and voice mail, is what you once heard while trying to place a call to someone who was already on one themselves. Pulsing tonelessness, musical and yet not, keeping you from the conversation and connection you craved. One of these is simulated in Jonathan Tunick’s expanded orchestrations for the Stephen Sondheim–George Furth musical, but who needs to hear it played by even expert musicians (under Paul Gemignani’s experienced baton) when director Lonny Price and his performers give you the dramatic equivalent for three solid hours?
Company, which premiered on Broadway in 1970, has always been unique of structure, formed from a series of Furth’s unproduced one-scene plays and Sondheim’s of-the-minute compositions, but built around an idea rather than a plot. Specifically: Robert examining his married friends’ successes and failures, and learning from them whether he wants to join their wedded number. Because of this, it can sometimes seem a show that has two distinct pieces, the book and the score, and never the twain shall meet. But rarely is the score brushed aside so brusquely, ignored so completely, that it starts feeling like the unwanted noise irrupting into your incomplete phone call.
In Price’s production, however, the energy, joy, and dynamism of both long-term relationships and New York City itself surge through the spoken scenes in a way all but unprecedented in contemporary times, leaving most of the songs feeling like dead air. The cast may blend theatre actors (Katie Finneran, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, Chryssie Whitehead) with screen stars (Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks) and those who occupy both worlds (Neil Patrick Harris, Craig Bierko, Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose), many with incontestable stage credits. But when a moment swings toward “play” or “musical,” they all sink or swim together. The result is to some extent the most effective Company in recent memory (superior in every way to John Doyle’s 2006 Broadway revival), but also seriously schizophrenic.
Take, for example, the scene containing that “busy signal” dialogue. Though best known for Marta’s urgent “Another Hundred People,” describing New York as “a city of strangers,” here you care only about the three wisps of single womanhood Robert (Harris) samples and discards. Flight attendant April is consumed with how boring she is, and is played, simply but deliciously, by the voluptuous Hendricks as being in desperate need of an oxygen mask to drop from overhead. Whitehead then appears as Kathy, Robert’s lost love, who’s guilty of the crime of wanting too little; the actress conveys with sad, laser intensity the confliction of needing what she doesn’t want and wanting what she doesn’t need, settling only for pain. Marta (Rose) speaks in the mock-lofty terms of someone who lives on an urban heartbeat, but filtered through the fragility of a woman who isn’t entirely sure she believes her own propaganda.
Yet when Rose sings “Another Hundred People,” in an untethered soprano rather than a decisive belt, you get no sense of her driven anxiousness or the allure of the city that underlies Robert’s own insecurities about finding someone to love. Likewise, when all three women join in the close-harmony “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” insanity is not what you hear: their singing recalls a rehearsing flute section, all mindless head voice lacking any frustrated and vivifying edge.
Robert’s visit with Harry (Colbert) and Sarah (Plimpton), whose marriage is defined as an ever-shifting game of one-upmanship (primarily through a makeshift karate battle), sizzles with subtext in a way the scene’s two songs, the ironic “The Little Things You Do Together” and the wistful “Sorry-Grateful,” don’t — when LuPone ignites the former with no trace of heat and Colbert oozes uncomfortably into the latter, you don’t believe they really believe their lyrics. And when it’s time for LuPone to lunge into “The Ladies Who Lunch,” it’s more about her artfully slurring her vowels to simulate drunkenness than about communicating the depths of the singer, Joanne, and her passion against merely watching the world go by. Yet when she, her husband Larry (Walton), and Robert discuss the ills of previous and present partnerships, you have all the bite you need.
It’s easy enough to excuse Colbert, Cryer, and Hendricks, as they’re personality actors without the innate musicality anything Sondheim-scribed needs. (Though Hendricks does deliver a vacantly funny “Barcelona.”) And Harris has no problems whatsoever. He may not possess the strongest vocal technique, but he grasps the importance of the voice as an instrument of the soul, letting you feel every bit of Robert’s aching nature as he searches for the mythical woman who’s all his female friends rolled into one. In addition, Harris’s youthful appearance also creates the crucial image of Robert as being trapped between boyhood and manhood — someone on the threshold, yearning to understand which way he ought to step.
Everyone else is harder to explain. Whether it’s due to insufficient rehearsal time, the difficulty of the music, or both, they all inject the songs with significant lulls that cause traffic slowdowns instead of invoking the dangerous magic of rush hour. Josh Rhodes tries to compensate with his properly frenetic choreography that emphasizes the human nesting instinct, even making major use of the numerous couches that constitute most of James Noone’s velvety framework set. But then he’ll unleash an incomprehensible “Tick-Tock,” traditionally about the difference between having sex and making love but here a sheet dance executed by Whitehead and four other women (scantily clad by costume designer Tracy Christensen), and you’ll long for the fiery simplicity that soloist Donna McKechnie must have brought to the number once upon a time.
Price may have been hampered by the material, which thrives on subtlety a concert format is not ideal for amplifying, and doesn’t have the grandiose sweep of the shows used in his other Philharmonic concerts (Sweeney Todd, Candide, Camelot). Filling the stage with what is ultimately a small show must also have been a daunting challenge. He needn’t have tried so hard: The intimacy can carry the evening, but it needs to be as prominent in the songs as the scenes, telling a single story from the beginning of Robert’s indecision to the flash point of his confidence. With so many people onstage who evince no self-assuredness at all whenever the music’s playing, that’s a difficult journey for him or us to successfully make, and it dampens the aural and the spiritual impact of Company as the symphony of crossed human wires it was always intended to be.