Whatever led to Stephen Sondheim’s passing at age 91 it wasn’t neglect. At the movies is Steven Spielberg’s brilliantly reconceived remake of West Side Story, his first significant work as lyricist in 1957; on Netflix is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom!, in which he appears as sage (played by Bradley Whitford) and contributes an answering machine cameo; and at home, onstage, are an Off Broadway revival of Assassins and, via London’s West End, a newfangled version of the show that kicked off his great and transformative run of Broadway musicals, Company (1970). Not a bad way for the curtain to come down on an illustrious career.

The show that began his storied association with Hal Prince as director, Company broke new ground, turning its gimlet eye not on some historical or fabricated environment but on its New York audience, putting their marriages, divorces, and anxieties in the spotlight. George Furth’s book, with its string of humorous vignettes centered on Bobby, 35 and unattached, is the delivery system for several classic Sondheim tunes, jaundiced, introspective, and brassy (sometimes all at once): “Side by Side by Side,” “Marry Me a Little,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Another Hundred People,” and more. Given how many musicals struggle to come up with one memorable song it’s no surprise that the creative team all walked away with Tony Awards.

But the episodic structure and purposefully vague and undefined nature of its leading man make Company difficult to pull off. I thought its 2006 revival, with Raúl Esparza’s soul-baring Bobby, came close (and it did) but I see I had some reservations. Sondheim and Furth had updated it in the mid-’90s but in consultation with the composer director Marianne Elliott (of the impressive War Horse) has gone much further, reassigning Bobby as Bobbie, who’s played by Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit). It’s an interesting idea, and occasionally a successful one, but this Company is more parts than whole. 

The British favor antic productions, and after the asperity of the last, Tony-nominated revival this one has a credited illusionist, and is full of lightboxes, streamer drops, and outsized letters that spell out the show’s name. All this business has the effect of padding the running time of a show that’s already pretty long given its fragmented nature but sometimes it connects. The show’s highlight, one that brought the audience to its feet, is “Getting Married Today,” reconceived as a same-sex union, with Matt Doyle in a perfect frenzy as a nervous groom rattling off Sondheim’s rapid-fire tongue twisters as the rest of the ensemble pops in through doors, windows, washing machines, and fridges. Hilarious–and it doesn’t much involve Bobbie, which is something of a relief.

Bobbie is the fabric who binds her friends together but is also their loose end, frustrating their efforts to pin her down. Lenk, bewitching in her EGT-winning turn in The Band’s Visit, is a natural woman of mystery, a quality accentuated by her red outfit–but mystery isn’t the same as ambiguity. Surrounded by amusing second bananas she often comes off as flat, never fully interacting with her fellow performers, as if hosting rather than starring. Part of it is the netherworldly concept, which has Bobbie using her smartphone to call up friends seemingly stuck in a ’70s Norman Lear sitcom, with jujitsu and pot, before zinging into the present day of gay marriage. Granted that the show is taking place more or less in her head as she tries to evade a “surprise” birthday party but Bobbie comes off as sort of nuts, finally delivered into the hands of a tart-tongued shrink figure…Patti LuPone, who, as the older and world-weary Joanne sets us all straight on “The Ladies Who Lunch” (and gets a round of applause for her dryly commanding performance).

Or…something, I could never get a handle on what the show was doing, with Bobbie one part Alice in Wonderland and another part Mary Tyler Moore. With one exception: a smartly conceived reengineering of the plaintive “Barcelona,” where Bobbie sees different scenarios (or, rather, the same one several times, of dutiful marriage and children) with Andy (Claybourne Elder), here a himbo dullard of an airline steward. It’s right in Lenk’s range and makes greater use of the changed-up sexual politics than other facets of the show. 

Company climaxes with Bobbie’s anthem, “Being Alive,” a powerhouse that’s underpowered here. But you can overthink a show as dazzling and befuddling as this, when simply enjoying what works about it is advisable. As we negotiate a post-Sondheim world for musical theatre it may be a mess at times but, like its creator, it’s never complacent, nor dull. 


About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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