One of last season's breakaway Broadway hits was John Doyle's innovative production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in which Michael Ceveris, Patti LuPone and the rest of the cast doubled as the orchestra, playing all of the musical parts onstage. As I noted here, I thought that production was a stroke of genius; admittedly, it probably helped that I wasn't burdened by nostalgic memories of a more conventional staging.
I figured that sooner or later Doyle would stage another show from the Sondheim canon in the same manner -- I just didn't expect one quite so soon, since I was unaware of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production of Company. That show opens on Broadway this week, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Wednesday night. Dr. LP and I caught a preview performance on Sunday afternoon.
David Gallo's sleek, spartan stage design worked well for a show set almost entirely in a series of Manhattan interiors. Ann Hould-Ward's stylish costumes, exclusively in black and white, occasionally made it tough to figure out which male character was which; female characters were more easily discerned, given differences in design and hairstyles.
Doyle's concept of actors-as-players had a different impact here than in his Sweeney Todd. There, the effect heightened the overall macabre surreality. Here, the presence of everyone onstage, or nearby and visible in the wings, effectively served to impart a sense of claustrophobia, which underscored the idea that Robert, the central character, can scarcely escape the pull of his various married friends as they offer advice on his status as an eligible single. That said, Company requires a larger cast than Sweeney Todd, and much of the blocking in this show reminded me of marching band drills -- sometimes deliberately, but mostly not, I suspect.
While some of the instrumental playing was admittedly scrappy at times, overall Mary-Mitchell Campbell's reorchestration lifted this attractive score out of its dated original form. (I can't overemphasize how much the absence of the amplified harpsichord effect aided this impression.) It was arguably this, more than anything else, that lifted Doyle's Company out of its original milieu and made it lean, modern and anytime. I especially admired a scene in which Robert's three girlfriends tooted saxophones in swing-era synchronization.
Raúl Esparza, a Robert handsome and lithe in manner and voice, spent most of the show providing an mellifluous blank slate against which everyone else's passions were played, but he certainly earned his ovation with a strongly felt "Being Alive." Angel Desai's Marta stood out with a punky stance and brassy "Another Hundred People." Kristin Huffman, the former Miss Ohio and runner-up Miss America cast as Sarah, was a big, blond highlight of every scene in which she appeared, and played a mean alto sax, flute and piccolo -- the last alluringly tucked away in her cleavage for safe keeping.
Heather Laws, as Amy, offered a breathtakingly nimble "Getting Married Today," and Leenya Rideout's Jenny was particularly convincing as a stoned straight. Less so was Barbara Walsh, whose Joanne looked the part but sounded a bit like Elaine Stritch by the numbers, most especially in bellowing extremes of "The Ladies Who Lunch." As for the men, they did their bit; Bruce Sabath, as Larry, and Keith Buterbaugh, as Harry, did more besides.
The verdict? The good Doctor wasn't altogether impressed (and how weird and uncomfortable a show to attend with one's fiancee, anyway), and the assembled TONY posse, not to give too much away, seemed mixed. For me, it was a qualified thumbs up, more "up" than "qualified." Doyle's conception yielded results far removed from what he achieved in Sweeney Todd, and initially I wondered whether this was because Company is more based in contemporary reality. In the end, however, I think it has more to do with intimacy; I can't imagine Into the Woods, a thoroughly fantastical show, successfully done in this manner. But I'd love to see Doyle take on Assassins.
More views, from theaterophiles and Sondheim-ites more seasoned than me, can be found at Litwit and Chazzy(blo)g (whose claim that more could have been made of textual nuance in individual lyrics I find completely spot on, in retrospect).
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