Make me confused, mock me with praise…

D’Arcy and I trekked to NYC today to see Company, which is in previews at the Barrymore Theater. This was an eagerly anticipated event for me – Company was my first Sondheim musical, and has a very special place in my heart. I saw the original NYC cast (including Larry Kert and Elaine Stritch) in London in January 1972, when I was a freshman in college. After buying the album and playing it until my roommates were ready to strangle me, I was cast in a college production directed by Larry Wilker in 1974; I played David, which those who know Company will know is a part for which I had plenty of real life experience, even if marriage was a good six years in the future for me. I directed Company with the students at Syracuse University in 1985, and conducted it in the Merriam Theater with the U Arts students in 1996, when Ben Dibble was a freshman and the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations were still available. In my musical theater class, I invariably talk about Company as a turning point in the evolution of the modern musical. And I’d felt a surge of enthusiasm reading Christopher Isherwood’s review of this production when it appeared at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park (archived elsewhere in this blog). It should come as no surprise, then, that I was pumped for this show.

Everything leading up to the start of the show couldn’t have been more perfect. Glided into Gotham via Amtrak. A sunny stroll up 8th Avenue, a leisurely lunch at Marseilles with a friend of a friend who had graciously arranged tickets for us. Slipping into the front row of the mezzanine at the Barrymore just before the house lights dimmed. And then…

(Warning: spoilers follow.)

Less theater-obsessed habitues of the Chazzyblog may not know the “gimmick” of this production, which was directed by John Doyle. Doyle won the Tony last year for his staging of Sweeney Todd, in which the actors in the production also functioned as instrumentalists. Doyle uses the same device in this new version of Company, creating what Isherwood called “a pop concerto for orchestra and single man.” Given the quirky non-linear dramaturgy of Sondheim and Furth’s 1971 musical, this sounded like an enormously promising concept. I’ve been a fan of the idea of mingling actors and instrumentalists for years – I can trace my explorations of this idea all the way back to “Spreading Tales,” a children’s musical that Dorothy Louise and I wrote when I was an undergrad student. Then there was the production of “The Soldier’s Tale” at DIAE, and most recently, my staging of “Made By Two” at the International Festival of Musical Theater in Cardiff.

So it pains me to have to report that I found this production to be very frustrating. I have wildly ambivalent feelings about what I saw: “sorry-grateful” feelings, to quote the title of one of the songs from the show. Grateful to see such talented performers and such generous support for a risky, unconventional project in a commercial theater; sorry to see that, despite the marshalling of some very impressive resources, the piece often didn’t work. Which isn’t to say that the audience wasn’t enthusiastic. They roared their approval for Raul Esparza after “Being Alive,” and rose to their feet for him in the curtain call. (He was fabulous, in fact.) But did they “get” the show? For my part, I felt like the producers had brought some terrific ingredients, but the meal that had been prepared from those ingredients was unsatisfying.

Company is a tricky piece of work. It’s a musical about marriage, and ambivalence is a key component in its esthetic strategy. It brings a kind of Brechtian dialectical approach to its subject. Robert is the consummate outsider, observing those “good and crazy people, [his] married friends” as he – and they – wonder why he’s still a bachelor. But the married couples provide plenty of evidence that marriage is a mixed blessing. “You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful,” counsels Harry in one of the show’s loveliest songs. Robert feels an unmistakable yearning for intimacy, and the relationships he pursues with several girlfriends (and even one of the wives) fails to ease this ache. In my view, Robert’s journey through the show is an escalating struggle to make sense of all the contradictory evidence and advice he receives and decide, finally, how he will move forward into the 35th year of his life.

The problem is that Doyle’s production, snazzy as it undeniably is, doesn’t do a very good job telling this particular story. Here’s some impressions of some of the individual moments in the piece:

  • An elegant unit set that always looks like the same place, whether we’re in a nightclub, a terrace apartment, a city park.
  • The opening birthday party scene done with no birthday cake, with all the actors facing front, intoning their lines in a posed tableau. Okay, I thought, very expressionistic, unrealistic, cool. But it didn’t tell me much at all about these people and their intimate relationships.
  • The opening number was a dazzling bit of virtuosity, as the actors all sang and played the complex contrapuntal score. Actors held their flutes, trumpets and clarinets near their faces, so that they could alternate sung lines (“Bobby bubi”) with short Sondheim-y instrumental figures. But it seemed like a pretty general hub-bub; there was little in the staging to help me differentiate one person from another, and so the overall impression was lively, virtuosic and short on theatrical information.
  • Harry and Sarah raced through their scene, and seemed inattentive to each other. When the time came for the karate demonstration which is the comic high point of their scene, they were actually on opposite sides of the playing area when their dialogue implied that they were gripping one another in a mutual hammerlock. Again: expressionistic, interesting, but entirely contrary to the notion that the married couples are intimate with each other. The wrestling is actually a physical manifestation of their interaction.
  • During her song “The Little Things,” Joanne uses a glass swizzle stick to strike her bar glass at key moments in the song. A perfectly hilarious sound. Barbara Walsh channeled the Stritch sound effectively. (I pointed out to D’Arcy that Barbara had included Blanche DuBois at Gretna Theater in her bio, which gave us an opportunity to reminisce about the disastrous Harvey Seifter season at Mount Gretna.)
  • The scenes with the three girlfriends were all well-acted. The woman who played Marta, in particular, was very engaging in her scene.
  • As the play went on, I found the characters hard to differentiate. All the costumes are black and white, mostly black. Very stylish, sure, and distinctive in their cut, but it always took me a few seconds to sort out – is that Harry or David or Peter? Jenny or Susan? To make matters more difficult, they would appear with different instruments (Jenny with a guitar? I thought she was a violinist! etc).
  • Because the actors play instruments, the director was limited in how much movement they could be given, many of the tableaux looked the same. Actors paraded around the perimeter of the playing area far too often.
  • Amy sang “Getting Married Today” at a blistering tempo, accompanied by piano (extreme stage right) and violin spiccato (extreme stage left). Remarkable feat of musical ensemble. Paul’s voice was light and tenory, without any of the operetta-ish sweep that his melody called for. He was sincere but bland in his scene.
  • “What Would We Do Without You” was a rousing instrumental showcase, with April puffing on the tuba and a raucous circus-y quality. The original staging of “Side by Side” in 1971 was a showcase for the young choreographer Michael Bennett, and culminated in a series of call-and-response tap breaks. Here, director Doyle substitutes a series of call-and-response instrumental riffs – a promising and appropriate idea, though it falls a little flat in execution, and Esparza’s kazoo riff isn’t set up quite right to pay off the previous bits.
  • The nightclub scene lacked any sort of visuals that would help make sense of the dialog at the beginning, when Robert and Joanne are aghast about Larry’s dancing. There is no waiter for the waiter gags. The smoking lines seemed eerily up-to-date in a world where smoking has now been banned from restaurants in NYC and Philadelphia.
  • “The Ladies Who Lunch” was sung with only piano accompaniment until the very end. Was this because a new transposition had just been made, and the orchestrations weren’t ready yet? Or was this supposed to evoke a piano-bar sort of mood? The song seemed particularly colorless compared to the others. As with many of the other songs, the staging and arrangement are designed to kill the hand at the end of the song.

My biggest dilemma of the afternoon had to do with the acting style which was presumably chosen by the director. The actors were surprisingly inattentive to the content of the lyrics or the inner drama they are meant to communicate.  For instance, Raul Esparza sang the opening song (“phone rings, door chimes, in comes company”) with little evidence of dramatic intent. The lyric is made up of a number of very short phrases, two and three syllable images (“late nights, quick bites, party games”) that never add up to a complete sentence. His behavior gave no clue to the reason for his singing. Worse, he never used any kind of focus shift or behavior modification to differentiate any of those phrases or images. (Those readers who know anything about the SAVI System of singing-acting, which is the core of my work with the students at UArts, will want to review Axiom I: “The singing actor creates behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.”) Many of the songs in the show suffered from this kind of extreme generalization.

“Sorry-Grateful,” the song for Harry and two other husbands, was a very general and inadequate reading of a lyric that is central to the argument of the show. There was never any behavioral inflection during the phrases, so that “You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful” was presented without any evident awareness that “sorry” and “grateful” are actually contradictory, not identical. “Nothing to do with, all to do with her” came out as one phrase, without any behavior to illuminate the mental shift denoted by that comma. In my singing-acting studio, I call this “the ballad trap” – the tendency to play a slow, beautiful song with a generalized mood rather than a particular sense of the content of the text and the dramatic event.

“Someone is Waiting” suffered from the same affliction, and so did “Another Hundred People,” which meant that by the middle of the first act, I was in a total panic. Not one of the soloists I had heard thus far showed any sign of “SAVI singing acting” – and yet, they were all Broadway professionals! Did this mean that I was teaching my students something that completely contradicted what they’d be expected to do on Broadway? Or was this just a particular stylistic quirk superimposed by director Doyle? It wan’t til after the show was over when I had a chance to confer with my companions and learn that they felt equally dissatisfied with the absence of behavior in the singing-acting.

I’ve tended to focus on my dissatisfactions with the production here, and I suppose that’s inevitable, and it will seem like a sop if I acknowledge here at the end the impressive array of talents on display on the stage. An actress like the woman who played Marta, who not only speaks well, sings well, acts with personality, plays a mean violin, and looks hot in a leather bustier, is truly a rare gem, and every member of the cast boasts an equally impressive array of gifts.  Raul Esparza is an actor of great sensitivity and disarming charm, perfectly equipped to play the complicated, underwritten role of Robert. He manages to convey surprising depth and make us care about a character who is historically a cipher through his acting and his personality.
The show is set to open in just a few more weeks – let’s see what others have to say about this wonderfully muddled production.

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