If you love the songs Stephen Sondheim wrote for Company, you've got plenty of company here, with two versions of the score. Also, a look at a second duet CD by two singers who seem to revel in each other's company, Babbie Green and John Boswell, released by her own record company.


Nonesuch/ PS Classics

Is it good? Yes. What do you get? Not the long-gone instrumental "Tick Tock," but you do get the once-cut "Marry Me a Little," more dialogue (including a lengthy build-up to the finale), a booklet with liner notes and all the lyrics to accompany the newest Company.

At its sometimes cold heart the score remains very much the Company many of us have known and loved, with some fresh ideas in the instrumental figures: everything's different; nothing's changed - maybe only slightly rearranged. The accompaniment played by the orchestra - a synonym for the cast, in this case - is crisp and, by nature of its size, sparer. Most of the time, that leaner, cleaner sound works to an advantage. It brings an intimacy to a show that is often about characters who fail to achieve emotional intimacy in relationships. Music supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell's orchestrations show great respect for the material in the broad strokes but find new opportunities to bring out new colors in big and small moments. There are changes in tempi and pauses that will come as surprises, especially to those who are very familiar with the initial album of Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1970 score. No automatic pilot is at the controls here.

Likewise, in the singing there are changes in phrasing or attitude, and cranking up the intensity on selected lines. More often, sections of songs come off more subtle or underplayed. It's always interesting to hear a variation, but of course "different" is not necessarily "better." Sometimes it's just different and less effective. This is the dilemma and challenge of having various recorded versions of theater scores when the first was very good, as was the case with Company. And there isn't much point to breeding clones. Before now, this score has had three previous major English language stage cast recordings.

I respect the acting choices even though I don't find them all rewarding. For example, the flow of the melody of "Sorry/Grateful" takes a back seat to the less even, more "acted" phrasing of the lyrics. As I hear it, some emotional power is sacrificed to gain a sense that the singing by the "husbands" is more reflective, which is not at all a bad thing. Also, "Being Alive" is more alive with cerebral, rather than celebrational, energy. Just considering this number as a listening experience, the central character played by Raúl Esparza does show a range of emotions - frustration, longing, fear, determination - but not quite the true catharsis. Admirably, he doesn't take the easy road portraying emotionally detached bachelor Bobby; he avoids playing him just as a cold fish and doesn't try to smooth his rough edges by ratcheting up the charm factor. He's troubled, aloof, defensive, lonely and yearning to connect - just as he should be. Raúl is a terrific theater singer and his committed, involved take on the guy who fears being committed is also evident in the lines of dialogue included here.

Among the other performers, there is solid, attractive singing and acting, too. Less comic neurosis and more intellectualizing come across. As panicky bride-to-perhaps-be Amy, Heather Laws comfortably navigates the quick-paced intricate patter lyric in "Getting Married Today." All involved here seem to play it for more realism and it's not as funny as it can be. The same can be said for "Barcelona." I don't envy anyone who has the daunting task of following in the footsteps of Elaine Stritch as the acerbic Joanne in the original company of Company. It falls to Barbara Walsh, whose work I have admired greatly in the past (Falsettos, Big, Broadway by the Year concerts) but the role doesn't play to her strengths of projecting sincerity and warmth. She's not a Stritch, so it's a stretch, and she has some good moments without copycatting, but she and director John Doyle don't seem to have found a truly brand new kind of Joanne.

The group numbers are especially well done and often exciting. The acting and interacting are sharp and the harmony and contrapuntal singing are super. Characterization and musical values don't compete, but enhance each other. This is especially true in the title number and "Side by Side by Side." The latter works remarkably well on a few levels: well-executed, it bursts with energy, has an edge and tension from Raúl, plus pure entertainment value with its vaudeville feel and delightful new instrumental phrases and accents. (Remember, the cast is also playing instruments, and they acquit themselves very well indeed; special praise to a "ringer" of sorts, established pianist/musical director Matt Castle who also is heard on double bass and in the role of Peter.)

Whether one quibbles with aspects of the interpretations or not, there is no question that the sound and drama-rich ambience are superb. This is especially evident in all of the larger group numbers where you can hear each of the many things going on at once, and all sound sensationally theatrical. Album producer Tommy Krasker has done a masterful job.

With several versions of Company around to choose from, ardent fans of the score are known by the Companys they keep. This Company's a keeper.

Note: The full cast of the Broadway revival will appear to perform and sign albums in celebration of the CD release at Barnes and Noble on Broadway and 66th Street tomorrow (Friday) at 5:30 pm.

'BYE NOW...:

Lark and Lion

As represented here, Cabaret Country is governed by good taste and wit and populated with intriguing songs with its main export being love. The album title of Babbie Green and John Boswell's 'Bye Now ... Notes from Cabaret Country is also a play on words indicating that the genres of cabaret and country music are mixed ... sort of. Not to worry if either style's stereotype excesses aren't what you like to listen to. There is no hushed nightclubby feel or twangy steel guitars. This material and the performances emphasize the quality that both kinds of music often share: sincerity and directness.

Two was last year's delightful CD by Babbie and John, subtitled Duets ... Mostly. This second teaming finds their vocal harmonies sounding even more natural, lived-in - more "right." John is not as prominent vocally this time, but sounds smooth and sure. Most of his previous albums spotlight his work as an instrumentalist, and he's on piano and keyboards throughout, with Babbie also playing. They worked together on the arrangements. All of the songs were written by Babbie, with John collaborating on the melody for "It Don't Take a Boy," an easygoing track. The CD is bookended by a number called "And I Dance" about cutting loose, and they do just that.

Two standout tracks feature Babbie's ageless and extra-warm, very natural voice: "Plant Me a Star" and "And It's Okay." The poetic and plainly idealized view of life in "Plant Me a Star" could almost be a ballade from the Elizabethan period, it sounds so pure and classic. Much of the sensibility and sweeter romantic flavor in this collaboration seem like a world long before modern times.

"And if in winter, I cry for spring
Fill my arms with May
Pick me a kiss in the meadow
Catch me some love in the sky
And they'll live in my heart 'til the day I die."

Wherever Cabaret Country is, its residents wear their hearts on their sleeves and are shut out from sin and cynics. The more contemporary "And It's Okay," is an eyes-wide-open recollection of someone who's gone captures the true and the rue in the memory. It's the track I root for my player to land on in shuffle play mode and seek out when I go back to this CD. A sample:

"He was always a bit tossed like the sea
And I'm always a bit lost in missing him each day
It always gets a little bit in my way
And it's okay."

Miss Green and Mr. Boswell make sweet company for each other and listeners with a taste for the truly tender and tuneful.

Babbie and John will appear at the Gardenia in Los Angeles on March 9 and 10 and the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan on April 13 and 14, singing mainly from Two. But by now, Bye Now ... is an album you can buy now at www.CDbaby.com, as it was officially released this month.


Getting back to the sound of Sondheim...



With its backing tracks on one CD and "guide vocals" on a separate CD, Stage Stars' products appeal to different kinds of people. Some are singers preparing for auditions, some are presenters without live musicians always around, and some buy them just to sing at home for fun. But the happy reality is that the singers hired take the work and the works seriously, and these theater-experienced vocalists have talent. The term "guide vocals" sounds like you'll be getting purposely bland and simplistic singing just to keep you in tempo and to reinforce the words. No. You get more.

Company is the strongest entry of the several I've heard in the series, which includes another Sondheim show, Into the Woods. This Company plays like a cast album, with all the songs. The instrumental tracks are uncomplicated and relatively easy to follow (taking the trickiness of Sondheim melodies into consideration). Those who want to learn the songs will find the CDs useful and others who can't get enough Company will find some refreshing performances here.

Reality check: these are not big-budget affairs and they don't pretend to be. Sophisticated, complex or subtle accompaniment would be counterproductive ... we're talking synthesizers giving simple, clear structures. The Company lyrics are not included as graphics or in printed form, and there are a few missteps. Once again, the role of Joanne proves to be tough to nail; a few of Marilyn O'Connell's jarring moments and laughing might have been rethought or remixed. But she gamely digs into "The Ladies Who Lunch" with rage and amusement. And "Another Hundred People" by Liz Donathan is generally fine but could use more variety.

The performance of Miles Phillips in the lead is excellent - fully realized, very present and nuanced. His Bobby is more vulnerable and accessible. The "Barcelona" duet with Christina Bianco is a real scene: they mine its numerous twists and turns that have comic potential and it's truly funny. The revelation here is Miles' riveting performance of "Someone Is Waiting," full of longing and desperation with emotional complexity.

The group number "Poor Baby" works very well, with the cast finding fresh and funny line readings in the quick husband-wife exchanges in the beginning and the women handle the major singing handily. "Have I Got a Girl for You" and "Sorry/Grateful" are also well done, kinder and gentler and attractively sung. Among the men playing the husbands on these, Booth Daniels stands out, bringing well-shaded phrasing and attractive vocal tones.

It's not surprising that the characterizations and vocals are on such a cast-album level. The singers have musical theater and cabaret experience. Just using the next three days in Manhattan as an example, Booth is doing his cabaret act at Don't Tell Mama tomorrow. At Helen's on Saturday, Miles is part of a cabaret act he directed, starring Rob Langeder (another veteran of the Stage Stars series) and Jason Wynn (a regular musical director for the albums and a great Horton in their just-received karaoke version of Seussical) performs his act there tonight and Saturday.

For so-called guide vocals, the Stage Stars singers perform way above and beyond the call of duty. That's Company policy.

Next week, more new CDs grouped together ... side by side by side.

- Rob Lester

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