The revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 "Company," one of the quintessentially New York musicals, looks like it was done by people who had never been here.
Admittedly, "Company" is set in a different New York. It's a city where middle-class people nervously sample their first marijuana, where it still seems outre for a woman to take up karate, and where people are still passionately addicted to nicotine.
Even in 1970, George Furth's depictions of the various couples who want their friend Robert to find a girl and join them in edgily married bliss seemed like a series of ideas for sitcom episodes.
But the original show had a consistency of style that made the sketches work. Boris Aronson's ultra-modern metal-and-glass set caught the steely tone of 1970 New York (and Sondheim's score) perfectly.
Tony Walton's set for the revival, all gleaming black with red trim lights, looks like the backdrop for a shipboard revue, and that's the way the show seems under Scott Ellis' cartoonlike direction.
Only a few moments seem genuinely human, chief among them the searing dance Charlotte D'Amboise does during the scene in which Robert seduces a stewardess. This sequence has a passion, a depth of emotion otherwise in short supply.
Of Furth's vignettes, the most credible is one about a couple who have lived together a long time and are finally tying the knot. On their wedding day the hysterical bride-to-be sings, "I'm Not Getting Married Today," in which Sondheim's brilliant wordplay is accentuated by music that crystallizes nervous energy. Veanne Cox underscores the pathos beneath the song's treacherously hard patter, which she handles superbly.
Boyd Gaines' much publicized vocal problems were nowhere evident in the final preview. He sings beautifully, but he hasn't made Bobby more than a cipher.
If the show had been written today, Bobby's fear of marriage and the misogynistic attitude toward its female characters might be more candidly justified. But for "Company" to work, the actor playing Bobby must at least give him an edge the text merely hints at. Gaines, alas, offers only chorus-boy charm.
The rest of the cast pushes terribly hard (by the end of the run, Debra Monk's voice may be more ragged than Len Cariou's at the end of "Sweeney Todd") because they have not been directed as if they were human beings, only some out-of-towner's idea of "kooky" New Yorkers.
The score, however, remains fresh and exciting, and if you treat it as nothing more than a revue, it's entertaining.
Score: Eight-and-a-half. Concept: Zero. That's "Company."
But even lesser Sondheim is worth writing home about, especially when one is sending dispatches from the Sahara-like terrain that the Broadway musical has occupied in the years since this show - revived at the Roundabout Theater last night - burst a little soggily upon us a quarter century ago.
And "Company" is not the worst of the Sondheim musicals - that sad distinction would have to be a play-off between "Follies" and "Assassins" -; even though it has its considerable faults which seem only exacerbated by time.
For Sondheim, and the past has only reinforced his position, is still Sondheim, and frankly I'd rather have the company of "Company" than dubiously associate with most of the other musicals currently on Broadway.
The trouble with the show is that it leaves a rather nasty taste in the mind. It tries to be chic and clever, and ends up misanthropic and banal, but this is the fault of its bloodless concept rather than Sondheim's music and lyrics.
It started out as a play (or perhaps a series of sketches) by George Furth on the subject of marriage with five couples miserably extolling the pleasure/pains of the all American institution of marriage and relationship to Bobby, a reluctant bachelor in danger of becoming an old maid.
This remains the musical's book, and it didn't work in 1970 and it doesn't work in 1995. Partly because of the modishly cynical theme (as it happens, somewhat unfashionable in our post-AIDS world) but also because of the tediously sequential way the theme has to be treated.
It's all one damn encounter after another, all pretty much similar, and all featuring cartoon-like characters - hard, hollow, brittle and all basically unlikable apart from a dim-witted cliche of an airline stewardess, who at least has a sweet and trusting nature.
That said, Sondheim's contribution is admittedly pretty remarkable - and I am even more taken today with the music and lyrics (the latter I always extravagantly admired) than I was originally.
The two big numbers, "Another 100 People" and "Being Alive," have become classics, while two of the novelty songs, the brilliant patter-piece "Getting Married Today" and the darkly acerbic "The Ladies Who Lunch," are matchless for their genre.
The new staging by Scott Ellis can muster little of the joie de vivre that made his earlier revival of "She Loves Me" so adorable, and two of the best aspects of the original - Boris Aronson's setting and Michael Bennett's choreography - are, of course, gone.
Tony Walton's skeleton staircase is a poor substitute for Aronson's fascinating homage to the American elevator, while Rob Marshall's choreography, with its undigested borrowings from Bennett, Bob Fosse and Eliot Feld, looks second-rate.
The performances, on the other hand, are in a different league. Boyd Gaines (apparently, but not noticeably, plagued with well-advertised vocal difficultlies) seemed splendid as the evasive Bobby, far, far better than Dean Jones back in 1970.
Among the others, all good, Jane Krakowski simpered deliciously as the stewardess, Debra Monk glowered stingingly in favor of lurching, lunching ladies, Veanne Cox wittily and virtuosically expressed her marital fears, and Charlotte d'Amboise danced with much of the earthy passion otherwise lacking in the show's concept.
However, when all is said and sung, the sad suspicion remains that "Company" itself is better entertained, and more entertaining, on a turntable, away from Furth's twittering dialogue, than in a theater. I await with impatient interest this production's CD version.
It has finally happened: "Company," Stephen Sondheim's innovative musical-comedy classic, has returned to Broadway for the first time since its Tony Award-winning premiere engagement in 1970. There have been concert versions and at least one Off Off Broadway production, but no Broadway revival until last night, when Scott Ellis's enthusiastic, glittery production opened at the Roundabout Theater. The occasion is long overdue, as well as something of a shock.
For anyone who, like me, knows "Company" only by way of a well-worn original cast album, the new production is like meeting a pen pal after a very long correspondence.
Though you may be so familiar with the Sondheim music and lyrics that you can play them in the mind at will, the show itself doesn't look or behave exactly as imagined. It's not a matter of having idealized the score. Instead, there's the realization that you'll always know it better for what it reveals over time, in comparative privacy, than for what will ever appear in a single public performance. As with a newly met pen pal, you have to make allowances.
Not, heaven knows, for some of the most dazzling and bittersweet show tunes Mr. Sondheim has ever written: "The Little Things You Do Together," in which marital intimacy is hilariously celebrated and demolished; "Side by Side by Side," an extra man's rueful awareness of where he stands in relation to the married couples who court him; "The Ladies Who Lunch," about a breed of overprivileged, underutilized Manhattan wives that may now be vanishing, and the show's coup de theatre, "Being Alive," which helps to conclude "Company" on a note that amounts to rousing ambiguity. For the most part, they are beautifully performed by the 14 members of the cast, actors who not only must sing and dance but also function as what in any other show would be the chorus.
The score is vintage Sondheim, a superbly smart, cool commentary on a kind of fastidious, upper-middle-class alienation that is particular to this island borough. In George Furth's book, that sense of disconnection is exemplified by the character of Robert (Boyd Gaines), who at the age of 38 is still unmarried and becoming restive in his role as everybody's best friend.
The entire show, like Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is an instantaneous flashback experienced by Robert, not as he is hanged but, for him, the next best thing to execution. He's rooted outside the door of the apartment where his friends have gathered for his "surprise" birthday party. He's unable to move. He can't act decisively (nothing new for him) as he contemplates his future in terms of the past, mostly in vignettes about the triumphs and failures of his pals.
Among them: the gently self-deceiving Sarah (Kate Burton) and Harry (Robert Westenberg), whose marriage is briefly reduced to an impressive karate match; Susan (Patricia Ben Peterson) and Peter (Jonathan Dokuchitz), who solve their problems by living faithfully together as a divorced couple, and Amy (Veanne Cox) and Paul (Danny Burstein), whose long relationship is threatened when they decide to get married. Sandwiched between these sketches, only some of which match the quality of the score, there are brief glimpses of Robert's succession of relationships with young women to whom he's unwilling to commit himself.
Though the new production pretends to be timeless, the talk of relationships and commitment forever anchors the show in the 1970's, when sending up such jargon seemed a much wittier endeavor than it does in the 1990's. Mr. Furth's plotless book is no longer startling, but it provides a serviceable frame for the Sondheim music and words.
There are several surprises in this "Company," including the performance by the pretty, rail-thin Ms. Cox, who plays a panicked bride wearing a mini-skirted, "Baby Doll"-like wedding dress. She receives the evening's most spontaneous applause for her big, phenomenally funny delivery of "Getting Married Today," when the bride suddenly decides she's not about to go through with it.
Jane Krakowski is a sweetheart who could melt steel as April, an airline stewardess, one of Robert's one-night stands, who complains that she can't get interested in herself because she's so boring. La Chanze delivers a powerhouse presentation of "Another Hundred People." She plays Marta, another of Robert's girlfriends, a young woman in love with New York because it's "for the me's of this world." Charlotte d'Amboise appears as Kathy, Robert's third girlfriend. Ms. d'Amboise also dances a brief solo intended (I think) to be an erotic evocation of love, though it doesn't yet fit neatly into the context.
The women in this production register much more strongly than the men, possibly because they are less passive. Ms. Burton is a delight as the karate expert. Debra Monk gives what is almost a combative performance as the tough, wise, much-married Joanne, the role originated by Elaine Stritch, who's no easy act to follow even 25 years later. It also isn't easy delivering two of the show's best-known songs, "The Little Things You Do Together" and "The Ladies Who Lunch," a number I associate with both Ms. Stritch and the regal supper-club chanteuse Mabel Mercer.
The production's toughest assignment falls to Mr. Gaines. A Tony-winner for "She Loves Me," he's a fine singing actor who has no problem with the show's demanding score. He's especially effective with "Side by Side by Side," "Being Alive" and "Marry Me a Little," which states (without defining) Robert's equivocal nature and is the show's one new song.
Robert is an impossible role; though everything in the show is seen through his mind, he himself is a cipher. At times it seems reasonable to suspect that he's a closeted homosexual. Yet you have to accept the show's presentation of him as simply a fearful heterosexual. In fact, Robert is a plot function. He exists to keep the rest of the show moving. He's the center of the show, but he's one of its least vivid, least compelling figures, a fellow who's nice to have around because he listens to everybody else's problems.
Mr. Ellis's physical production is first-rate. Tony Walton's unit set is a vaguely Art Deco, two-tiered construction of black glass, chrome, mirrors and stairways. The space is so adaptable that it allows the show to move with speed from the more intimate scenes to the all-hands-on-stage production numbers, comically and eclectically choreographed by Rob Marshall. Peter Kaczorowski was responsible for the lighting and William Ivey Long for the costumes.
Robert is the production's only real flaw, and that flaw is built in. Unless he's singing, he's a genial, mild-mannered bore. Robert is what it's all about, but we know more about his pals than we do about him. This has the effect of giving "Company" a split personality that only the incandescent Sondheim score renders irrelevant.
Few musicals have captured their times as perfectly as "Company." Three bars of Jonathan Tunick's guitar-accented orchestrations, a line from "Another Hundred People" and you can be nowhere else but New York City, 1970. Awaiting the Roundabout Theater Company's much-anticipated revival, one held one's breath. How would "Company" hold up? Would the Roundabout be up to the challenge? The answer to the first question is, just fine; to the second, a qualified yes.
After a shaky start, the show builds, expanding, finally, to greatness. The show needs some time to settle down, and for Boyd Gaines to fully recover his voice. But a transfer to a larger Broadway house seems inevitable, because a lot of people are going to want to see this show, and they won't be disappointed.
As with the Roundabout's recent revival of "She Loves Me" (with whom the present show shares a director, choreographer, star and set designer) "Company" re-creates a period piece without reinventing it, trusting the material. In the present case, thematerial developed from a series of plays written by actor George Furth and later transformed by Sondheim, at the instigation of director/producer Harold Prince, into a musical.
It's impossible to re-experience exactly the feeling one had, seeing "Company" for the first time 25 years ago at what is now the Neil Simon Theater, knowing that the musical theater would never be the same; indeed, that one's own life would never be the same. The Beatles had broken up, and for the rest of America, the Me Decade would be defined, at least in pop music terms, by James Taylor and Jackson Browne. But on Broadway, on the musical-theater stage, the revolution was evolving differently, and here was "Company" to lead the way: A grown-up show that cast the era's personal obsessions --"space," "commitment, " "compromise," "fulfillment" -- in a mature, not to say skeptical, light.
"Company" had no plot, only a concept: 38-year-old Bobby (Gaines) lives a freewheeling life as an adorable single man, juggling girlfriends while being pampered by a pentad of married couples. They wish to see him paired off so that he, too, may partake of the daily terrors and comforts offered by wedded bliss.
Bobby is surely the musical theater's most passive leading man: He observes these couples with a mixture of bemusement and envy, noting the passion -- along with the compromises and lies -- that go into making a marriage work, best captured early on in "The Little Things You Do Together," sung by Joanne (Debra Monk) and the company. Is it worth it? Bobby wonders. Well, it's a matter of always being "Sorry-Grateful," his men friends respond, with grateful tipping the scale.
Bobby cherishes his friendships in the songs "Company" and "Side by Side," even as he witnesses such shattering scenes as "Getting Married Today," in which Amy (newcomer Veanne Cox) confronts her doubts about marriage to the wonderful man she's been living with for years (Danny Burstein), while the wedding guests wait.
The number -- a patter song on methedrine delivered by Cox with exquisite pathos -- is brilliantly undermined by the dramatic scene that follows, in which Amy finally negotiates a convoluted way to go ahead with the wedding, only after showing a determination to break up the relationship.
The dark secret of "Company," of course, is that for all the lip service paid to the idea of wedded bliss, Bobby's not really interested, as is apparent in the show's most revealing song, "Barcelona." After an athletic night in bed with a brainless stewardess (the entirely adorable Jane Krakowski) whose name he can't remember, his phony enticements to make her stay actually succeed -- to his horror -- and he can only lie back in bed and mutter, "Oh, God!"
The neat resolution that soon follows -- the anthem "Being Alive" suggesting Bobby's having come around -- still never quite convinces. (In its Boston tryout , the final song was a renunciation of couplehood so bitter it scared off even Prince.)
For the original "Company," Prince brought in Michael Bennett to stage the musical numbers. The revival represents the best staging Scott Ellis has ever done. But Rob Marshall's choreography -- which includes movement for the entire company as well as the solo "Tick Tock," originally staged by Bennett for Donna McKechnie and performed here by the talented Charlotte d'Amboise -- more closely resembles calisthenics than dance. You get really tired of seeing actors thrusting their arms heavenward, and you soon wonder whether Marshall has any interesting ideas in his head.
That's not the only reason "Company"takes some time taking off. Gaines, afflicted by a throat ailment, is clearly not up to speed, though just as clearly, he will get there. Moreover, the stripped-down, synthesizer-dependent (and guitarless!) orchestra sounds thin and, at the top of the show, was frequently out of synch with the singers.
But the minute La Chanze launched into "Another Hundred People" about two-thirds of the way through the first act, "Company" was off and never stopped running, from Cox's febrile, heartbreaking "Getting Married Today," to the great ensemble number "Side by Side," to Monk's bruising, rafter-raising "Ladies Who Lunch."
Solid contributions are also made by Robert Westenberg, Kate Burton, Patricia Ben Peterson, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Diana Canova, John Hillner and Timothy Landfield.
Tony Walton's generic trio of staircases, purposely underlit by Peter Kaczorowski, reinforce the show's low emotional temperature (in keeping with the Boris Aronson originals). The always reliable William Ivey Long has supplied costumes that lovingly spoof the period, along with some terrifically slinky numbers for Bobby's three girlfriends.
As "Pal Joey" had done three decades earlier, "Company" broke the rules by denying the Broadway audience a fuzzy-warm hero and an upbeat ending. We learned to live with it. "Company" is cool in both senses of the word. It's also exhilarating.