“Being alive,” indeed.
The recent death of Stephen Sondheim undoubtedly marked a watershed moment in the history of the American theater, as the innumerable tributes and memorials to the composer-lyricist and his work attest. But for vital proof that Sondheim is, in a metaphorical sense, still with us, and just as pertinent as ever, look no further than the absolutely dazzling Broadway revival of “Company” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
The production, directed by Marianne Elliott — or rather thoroughly reimagined by Marianne Elliott — scrubs away the date-stamps on this 1970 musical, with a book by George Furth, so thoroughly that the show seems as if it was written yesterday. While maintaining the original’s eternally relevant themes, of emotional uncertainty and the risks and rewards of the married state, the production refreshes them for a new century and a society that has changed radically in the past 50 years.
As most interested parties will know, because the production opened to acclaim in London three years ago and was in previews when the pandemic shut down Broadway, the headline-making change made to the musical is the gender-switch of the central character. Originally a man, Bobby, turning 35, is now a woman named Bobbie of the same age.
Katrina Lenk, a Tony winner for “The Band’s Visit,” plays Bobbie, around whose birthday party the plot centers, although “Company” eschews traditional narrative to move back and forth in time and allows characters to sing or add commentary to scenes they are, strictly speaking, not actually participating in. The party guests are Bobbie’s married friends, who in the kaleidoscopic unfolding of the show will reveal the fissures in their unions in various ways, as well as the frayed or firm ties that still bind them. The actors cast in these roles — most notably the estimable Patti LuPone as Bobbie’s oldest friend, Joanne — as well as those playing Bobbie’s trio of boyfriends, give virtually flawless performances; this is a musical theater ensemble that approaches perfection, as indeed does the show.
Broadly speaking, “Company” is a musical meditation on emotional ambivalence, the sense that “the road you didn’t take,” to quote a Sondheim lyric from another show, might have been preferable to the one you are on. Virtually all of the married characters raise questions about decisions they made — specifically the choice to commit their lives to their spouses — and for most of them, the answers to those questions will always remain elusive or ambiguous.
This overarching theme is first struck in the second scene, when Bobbie spends an evening with Harry (Christopher Sieber) and Sarah (Jennifer Simard), both battling addictions — he to booze, she to food — when they are not literally battling each other, in demonstrations of jiu-jitsu. Simard, a comic actor of remarkable gifts, finds unexpectedly rich seams of humor in the scene — even without the slapstick grab for a brownie. But it’s when Bobbie is about to leave, and turns to ask Harry if he ever regrets getting married, that the show’s theme announces itself, in the song “Sorry-Grateful.” Sieber, who leads the song, captures with a fine rue the answer indicated in the song title and elaborated throughout the musical: that he is “always sorry” and “always grateful,” which is to say forever oscillating between satisfaction and the what-might-have-beens.
Finding lively humor in his minor role is Christopher Fitzgerald, as David, married to Nikki Renée Daniels’ Jenny. Sitting outside what appears to be a Brooklyn brownstone (the sets, by Bunny Christie, are minimalist but superbly detailed), they share a joint with Bobbie. Here, too, a minor but rewarding change to the text has been made, so that it is David who gets loopy when he’s high, as opposed to Jenny. (When you read the original book today, she comes off a little ditzy.) Crowning the comic scenes is, of course, the depiction of the pre-wedding jitters of Jamie (Matt Doyle), known as Amy in the original. Doyle delivers the thoroughly delectable patter song “Getting Married Today” with a dizzying breathlessness and a seismic sense of intensifying desperation.
Meanwhile, Bobbie’s boyfriends dip in and out of the proceedings, with Bobby Conte, a manbun-sporting, slightly daffy hipster (Marta in the original), leading a beautifully staged “Another Hundred People,” in which giant letters spelling out the show’s title are reduced to spell out NYC. And making Bobbie’s flight attendant lover a man, played with genially goofy good humor by Claybourne Elder in the scene featuring the lovely lament “Barcelona,” once again erases the twinges of misogynistic condescension toward the self-admittedly dim character in the original.
But first among equals stands, or rather struts, LuPone as Joanne, the acid-tongued older woman whose every utterance drips cynicism. It is hardly surprising that this brilliant musical theater performer presides over her two major songs, the wry “The Little Things You Do Together” and the slow-burning scorcher “The Ladies Who Lunch” — both featuring some of Sondheim’s most coruscatingly witty lyrics — with electrifying vocal aplomb. But what I found most remarkable, and satisfying, about her performance was LuPone’s shading of the character’s savagery, sanding down the edges of Joanne’s bitter quips to render her less a quasi-gorgon than a painfully disillusioned — and wise — woman. (Everybody rise!)
Criticism of “Company” over the years has tended to center on the depiction of the central character, who can seem peripheral to his, or her, own story, remaining a bland cipher on the sidelines. Lenk’s performance is thoughtful and appealingly laid-back; you sense Bobbie carefully analyzing her emotions, and those of her friends, moment by moment. (And Christie’s bright red costumes for Lenk, in contrast to the subdued ones of the other characters, enhance the understated centrality of her character.) If Lenk doesn’t quite nail the musical’s climactic song, “Being Alive,” that’s more due to the natural discrepancy between her pure but light lyric soprano and the anthem-like quality of the song, which often rises to a thunderous climax; here it’s more reflective than roof-raising.
That is, however, a very minor flaw in a production otherwise without any. This is not a run-of-the-mill revival, or merely a superb Sondheim production, of which there have been many in the past couple of decades. It infuses new life into a classic show with such intelligence, wit and care that it could, and should, become a template for future productions. Remarkably, we now have two different and equally viable versions of this landmark musical.
“Company” opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Dec. 9, 2021.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by George Furth; Music by Stephen Sondheim; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Marianne Elliott; Choreographed by Liam Steel; Scenic Design by Bunny Christie; Costume Design by Bunny Christie; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design by Ian Dickinson and Autograph.
Producers: Elliott & Harper Productions, The Shubert Organization, Catherine Schreiber, Nederlander Presentations, Inc., Crossroads Live, Annapurna Theatre, Hunter Arnold, No Guarantees, Jon B. Platt, Michael Watt, John Gore Organization, Tim Levy, Grove/REG, Hornos/Moellenberg, Levine/Federman/Adler, Beard/Merrie/Robbins, LD Entertainment/MWM Live, Benjamin Lowy/Roben Alive, Daryl Roth/Tom Tuft, Salmira Productions/Caiola Productions, Aged in Wood/Lee, Sachs/Berinstein/Lane/42nd.club, Boyett/Miller/Hodges/Kukielski, Finn/DeVito/Independent Presenters Network, Armstrong/Ross/Gilad/Rogowsky, Boardman/Koenigsberg/Zell/Seriff, Concord Theatricals/Scott Sanders Productions/Abrams/May, deRoy/Brunish/Jenen/Rubin, Fakston Productions/Sabi/ Lerner/Ketner, Maggio/Abrams/Hopkins/Tackel, Levy & Chauviere and Jujamcyn Theaters.
Cast: Katrina Lenk, Patti LuPone, Terence Archie, Etai Benson, Bobby Conte, Nikki Renée Daniels, Matt Doyle, Claybourne Elder, Christopher Fitzgerald, Greg Hildreth, Manu Narayan, Rashidra Scott, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Kathryn Allison, Britney Coleman, Jacob Dickey, Javier Ignacio, Anisha Nagarajan and Heath Saunders.