Day 365 finally arrived so it had to be a big one … but what? Despite reaching the giddy heights of watching and reviewing 541 pieces of online theatre in the last twelve months, there does still seem to be a wealth of stuff that I haven’t got to yet. But something I had discovered a few weeks ago and had been holding onto for a special occasion seemed to fit the bill. As one of the very best musicals ever written Stephen Sondheim’s Company would take some beating and as there is a 2006 revival of the piece feely available on You Tube, yesterday seemed the right moment to enjoy it once again.
The director John Doyle has become renowned for his productions in which the actors are also the musicians and has applied the format to two other Sondheim works: Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along. As written Company, the middle production of this trilogy, is perhaps rather more stylised in concept than the other two and therefore adapts itself to what at first seems an odd production idea but which ultimately pays dividends especially when it becomes apparent that Bobby, the central character, is an observer of rather than a participant in the instrumentation. For this neatly sums up the character who has a whole raft of friends but just cannot seem to really connect with any of them. He effectively has become an outsider to the group of five couples as, despite their best efforts, he remains resolutely single. The script follows Bobby as he visits the various pairs and watches from the side lines as they marry, divorce, drink, experiment with pot and practise karate moves.
George Furth’s book is really a series of themed sketches, and has been criticised as such, but I would say that the lack of connection is one of the strengths of the piece as it comments on the central character’s attitude to life. Even at his 35th birthday party, the musical’s linking device, he seems remote and an observer at his own festivities. In this central role Raúl Esparza has a slightly haunted quality and conveys the sense that there is an emotional volcano just waiting to explode, which of course it does in the final song “Being Alive”. Apparently, Sondheim has commented that Esparza’s embodiment of the part is the best he has ever seen and, while I’m not so sure about that, the actor has the remarkable ability to suggest inner turmoil without moving a muscle. With the five pairs who portray the various friends, it can be difficult to keep track of who is who and who is connected to who. And it’s clear that Sondheim/Furth are more interested in the female characters who tend to be more rounded than the less dynamic men. Particular stand out characterisations come from Barbara Walsh as the arch cynicist Joanna and Heather Laws as the uptight Amy. They also get to perform two of the best known numbers “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Not Getting Married”; the latter with its fast speak lyrics is particularly well done. The final three characters in the fourteen strong team are Bobby’s girlfriends who give a delightfully crazy rendition of “You Can Drive A Person Crazy” as a saxophone trio; Elizabeth Stanley as ditzy air hostess April is a delight.
The production design by David Gallo is austere or chic (depending on your view) and with the piece’s settings being diverse locations that is probably a wise move to ensure that the action flows. The ice cool feel of the production is reinforced by the lighting choices of Thomas C. Hase. For much of the action the cast sit around the perimeter as silent observers and their voices are used to penetrate Bobby’s subconscious. Often, of course, they are concentrating on their musical contribution. And what an array of instruments there are including a tuba, a glockenspiel and a carefully calibrated glass of water – many of the actors play more than one thing and the various combinations used bring out the vitality of one of Sondheim’s wittiest scores; “Side By Side By Side/What Would We Do Without You” is given a particularly joyous rendition.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the most recent gender swapped London production which altered my perception of the piece for evermore but there were still a number of remarkable moments. I found myself wishing I had seen Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd as that must have been extraordinary. However, as a way of celebrating rather a big milestone this version of Company proved more than equal to the task and brought this year’s activity to a fitting climax. Watching all this online theatre and reviewing it has brought a sense of structure and purpose to an otherwise dismal year. Although there has been a deal of sniffiness about it as a genre I’d have been pretty lost without it – as one of the songs from the show has it:
What would we do without you?
How would we ever get through?
Company is available on You Tube – click here
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