Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati


Raul Esparza and the Cast of Company
For at least a little while, Cincinnati, Ohio has to be considered the place to be for musical theater fans around the world. Not only do we have the tour of the monster hit Wicked in town (featuring many new principals), but now we have the premiere of Director John Doyle's highly anticipated production of Stephen Sondheim's Company. With Doyle's unorthodox approach and on the heels of his success with a Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, you can be sure that many theater bigwigs will either be flying into Cincinnati or eagerly awaiting reports on this rendition of the respected show. Luckily, this version of Company offers many of the same splendid results, and is a worthwhile and new take on the piece. Doyle's production, like his Sweeney Todd, uses actors who also perform as the orchestra (and to a lesser degree as stage hands) and the sheer amount of talent seen on stage, in addition to the unique and striking directorial choices, are enough to make this a must see for Cincinnati audiences and beyond.

Company, which premiered in 1970 and garnered six Tony Awards, focuses on Robert, a bachelor in "modern" New York City, and his married friends. Despite the insistence of the five couples that comprise his social circle that Robert find the right girl and settle down, this single guy must overcome his fear of the many negative consequences that he sees (from those same five couples) and understand the advantages of a being in a committed relationship.

The book for Company by George Furth was unlike any other Broadway musical before it when the show premiered. Instead of a traditional storyline, this "concept musical" plays out through a series of vignettes presenting the sometimes harsh realities of love and marriage (rather than the usual romanticized versions). Even though Robert is the central character, he mostly observes these five couples (and a few others), who provide commentary on Robert, themselves, and marriage. This character-driven show pulls very few punches in its stark presentation of the timeless and universal issues of companionship and, for better or worse, what we go through to have it.

Stephen Sondheim's score includes the master's normal witty and well crafted lyrics and his challenging, yet superbly melodic music. This piece allows Sondheim to provide songs that explore the emotional canvas that deep relationships require, as well as highly intellectual examinations of the human condition, which no one does better than Mr. Sondheim. Some of this score's gems are "Another Hundred People" (with its frenetic rhythm and words that capture the chaos and loneliness of this "city of strangers"), "Barcelona", a simply written tune chronicling an awkward exchange between Robert and a young woman after their one-night stand, and the slow and sardonic "The Ladies Who Lunch" (which is Joanne's biting commentary on the women in Robert's life). Other standout numbers include the achingly hilarious "Getting Married Today", Act 1 closer "Marry Me A Little", and "Being Alive", Robert's anthem that closes the show, where the audience sees that he has finally matured enough to be ready for a committed relationship. "Being Alive" is one of four songs written to end the piece, and its hopeful message and soaring melody leave theatergoers with a musical treat. Sondheim's contemporary music and sophisticated lyrics are perfect matches for the subject matter.

John Doyle's trademark directorial approach is to have his actors also serve as the onstage orchestra. Mr. Doyle's highly praised staging of Sweeney Todd, currently running on Broadway, is winningly stylistic, intense, and perfect in tone. With the staging stripped of all but essential movement and with few bells and whistles, both the humor and horror of Sweeney are enhanced. However, all of this was accomplished at the expense of clear storytelling, and created a somewhat muddled overall concept (When is it set?, Is the story played out in one character's mind?). While those familiar with the musical found his version to be brilliantly rewarding and theatrically thrilling (this writer included), it was a poor introduction to the piece for newcomers, with some scenes suffering from the limited blocking due to the actors having to also play their instruments.

The results with Company are similar. The real meat of the show, Robert's disconnect from the rest of the world, as well as the droll and witty humor, are communicated wonderfully. This Company is rooted firmly in 2006, with the characters presented as elite New Yorkers who, despite their individual eccentricities, are perfectly matched couples. The highly stylized blocking (with many of the actors ominously circling Bobby as they critique him) and apt tone of Doyle's approach enhance the material and bring it to present time (even minimizing the impact of the script's depiction of casual sex and recreational drug use that is quite 1970s as written). And, after only a few scenes, the fact that the actors are also playing and carrying instruments around is almost forgotten, their integration being so complete and natural. Like his current Broadway hit, this director's approach does muddle a few plot points (such as April and Robert's one-night stand). However, because Company doesn't have the intricate through-story possessed by Sweeney Todd, these issues seem minor in comparison and this technique thankfully doesn't create the same difficulties in presenting a clear book and concept. The numbers that open both acts are staged with grace and inventiveness, and the ending of the show couldn't be more accurate in tone. This director requires an audience to use its imagination and intellect more than most, and it makes for both exhausting and exciting theatergoing.

Assisting Mr. Doyle's approach immensely is Music Supervisor and Orchestrator Mary-Mitchell Campbell. The instrumentation is fresh and current, and the instruments even somewhat fit the characters. The re-orchestration of the piece to allow for sufficient musical backing while taking into consideration the need for singing and movement by the musicians had to be an enormous undertaking and is key to the success of the show.

Broadway vet Raul Esparza (Tick Tick Boom, Taboo) embodies Robert with a deadpan awareness of his detachment from other people. His acting makes this character, which in reality doesn't have a lot of lines for a central figure in a musical, a fully formed person who moves from passive observer of life to a man ready to connect with someone. With a distinct and forceful vibrato in his singing, Esparza isn't likely to be one of the better singers to have performed the role, but his delivery of the lyrics in a meaningful way makes his portrayal a great one.

Of the supporting performers, the women have the best material. Making the greatest impressions are Barbara Walsh (an intense and cynical Joanne), Elizabeth Stanley (ditzy April), Heather Laws (manic bride-to-be Amy), Leenya Rideout (square Jenny), Kristin Huffman (sarcastic Sarah), and Amy Justman (southern Susan). However, all of the cast do their multi-tasking responsibilities with a calm accuracy and flow that is astounding. Many of them play more than one instrument, and their ability to move quickly from singing to playing (or both at the same time) is a sight to behold.

The set by David Gallo features a square hardwood floor with blacks and whites everywhere else. With only a few set pieces (a tall white column with a radiator at its base, a bar, and a piano), the minimalist design conjures up the confined spaces of sophisticated metropolitan New York. Thomas C. Hase's lighting is brilliant, with a flood of spotlights used inventively for mood and to show Robert's isolation. The black and white costumes by Ann Hould –Ward are high class modern New York chic all the way.

Cincinnati might just be getting used to hosting high-profile theater events after this week. This version of Company, like some of Mr. Doyle's other shows, might not be for everyone. However, there is no argument that certain aspects of the musical are enhanced, and that the distinctive direction and exceptional musicianship (both vocally and with instruments) displayed on stage make the show one to remember and admire. While audience members of Doyle's presentation of Sweeney Todd are immediately hit with an impact and effect of thrilling theatricality, his Company is one that requires more thought and consideration. But, it also has a style and clarity of tone and message that is perfectly suited to the material and makes this production special. Company continues at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park until April 14, 2006. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.

Photo: Sandy Underwood

-- Scott Cain

Also see the current Cincinnati Area Theatre Schedule

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