Company A Musical Comedy. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Direction and musical staging by John Doyle. Musical supervision & orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by Thomas C. Hase. Sound design by Andrew Keister. Hair & wig design by David Lawrence. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Raúl Esparza with Keith Buterbaugh, Matt Castle, Robert Cunningham, Angel Desai, Kelly Jeanne Grant, Kristin Huffman, Amy Justman, Heather Laws, Jane Pfitsch, Leenya Rideout, Fred Rose, Bruce Sabath, Elizabeth Stanley, Renée Bang Allen, Brandon Ellis, David Garry, Jason Ostrowski, Jessica Wright, Katrina Yaukey, and Barbara Walsh.
The best that can be said about director John Doyle's new version of Company - and it's not saying much - is that it skates circles around his Sweeney Todd from last season, then throws in some figure eights and triple axels for good measure.
You can rest safe in the knowledge that a trip to the Barrymore, where Company just opened after originating at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park last spring, recalls a musical more than the Saturday night jaunt to the Meatpacking District Sweeney evoked. No, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the musical composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth wrote, but one headache at a time, please.
Doyle has not only transplanted this pensive 1970 rumination on commitment to the present day, but has escorted it off the streets of Manhattan and into a handful of the city's swankiest nightclubs. You want jazz? We've got jazz. Up for hearing a supper club band? That's here, too. How about the drunken braying of an Upper West Side doyenne to piano accompaniment? You're in luck! Doyle stops short of encouraging an audience singalong a la Marie's Crisis, but he's covered all the other bases.
He and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward have even outfitted their 14 performers in properly subdued evening attire. Oh, occasional flashes of yellow or green might flicker from the instruments in Thomas C. Hase's lighting plot, but everything else you see and hear is first and foremost awash in black and white.
This unwelcomeness of color is the crucial problem with Doyle's vision for Company. While the show deals on the surface with the troubles of unconfirmed bachelor Robert (Raúl Esparza) trapped in singlehood among a group of too-encouraging married friends, it requires the throbbing pulse of New York City to imbue Robert's community with the vibrant, expectant energy of life whizzing by, and this is what Doyle's conception most noticeably lacks.
The show's thematic bookends are the first act's "Another Hundred People," a rush-hour frenzy set to music, and the second act's "Being Alive": Taken together, they warn us that in a "city of strangers," connection is almost possible, but to live without it is not to live. New York - like commitment, romance, and sex - might be loud, messy, busy, and impersonal, but it is never, ever monochromatic. To treat it as such is to excise the heart and soul of the show's sound and feel, and the result is an evening without the heart and the soul that all quintessential New York musicals thrive on.
Without the city's imposing, omnipresent vitality charging the characters' libidinous urges, this show and everyone in it look like the products of a Puritan theme park. (It has been so desexualized, in fact, it hardly feels dated at all, often a concern with a show about a serial bed hopper.) Not, however, a humane one: As he did in Sweeney Todd, Doyle has instructed his actors to almost never acknowledge each other, to deliver most of their lines vaguely and to the audience, and to evince as few recognizable human emotions as possible.
This is undeniably a bold choice, if one that leeches the humor, passion, and regret from Furth's wryly literate, carefully constructed book and snappy characters. Doyle's meddling never gets more extreme (or more absurd) than having one married couple mime karate while standing on opposite sides of the stage - they're physically touching but not really together, get it? - but his first priority never seems to communicate the story or illuminate the characters in sensible, logical ways. (This Company is far clearer than Sweeney was, but the uninitiated should read a character breakdown beforehand.)
Only Esparza even moderately escapes being affected by this: His natural charisma, good-guy grace, and sly magnetism leak out from beneath an affected disinterested exterior that can only be Doyle's work. (Even in dour roles, Esparza has never seemed as joyless as he does here.) If we get no sense of Robert's complete journey from satisfied single to relationship-ready, Robert's conflicted feelings resonate strongly in Esparza's performance and inject his climactic "Being Alive" with a poignant urgency absent in too many renditions.
The other performers are cocktail peanuts to Esparza's steak tartare: No male actor makes an impression at all; Heather Laws is bewildering as a scattershot bride-to-be, and unfunnily mashes her way through the warp-speed "Getting Married Today"; Elizabeth Stanley is too grounded to convince as the flighty airline stewardess Robert beds; and Angel Desai ineffectually blares her way through the usually profound "Another Hundred People" while perched atop an onstage grand piano like a disintegrating Helen Morgan.
Ah yes, the piano. That brings us to the meat of Doyle's concept: the actors playing instruments. As Company has always been highly conceptual, with most of the scenes swirling into being from the confused corners of Robert's mind, this kind of conceit damages the proceedings less than in the more realistic Sweeney Todd. Many of the ways it's used here - turning the three ladies of the girl-groupy "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" into a sax trio, for example - even accentuate, however unnecessarily, Doyle's tour through Manhattan nightspots.
This gives the production a sense of consistent style that eluded the sloppy Sweeney, though as none of it has anything to do with Company, its dramatic value is nonexistent. And the new orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell (including, depressingly, a kazoo) pale compared to Jonathan Tunick's elegant originals; as Doyle's New York is not one of color, it's unsurprising it's also not one of music.
One does wish Doyle would at least respect his own gimmickry: Parading the grand Barbara Walsh, as the worldly Joanne (the role Elaine Stritch originated), about the stage banging on a triangle and occasionally a highball glass parodies using actors as accompaniment more than supporting the idea, as Doyle stated in a recent New York magazine interview, that "The music playing is a means to an end - the end being engagement between the audience and performers."
Directors of musicals have never before needed to stick instruments in their actors' hands to get them to engage the audience. In directing the original Company, Harold Prince and Stritch made Joanne's "The Ladies Who Lunch" a shattering showstopper with a full pit orchestra, and I've never heard one complaint about it.
It plays here as the inebriated ramblings of a frustrated social climber
rather than protean wisdom from a hardened vet of the battle through life,
but worse, Walsh is denied the applause her flailing against Doyle's
constraints warrants, and that audience apparently wants to bestow upon her.
Allowing the audience to applaud is one way to engage them; denying them the
opportunities they crave, instruments or no, is alienating. Judging from
what he's already given us, it's no shock Doyle chose the latter.