Phone rings, door chimes, in comes another revival of Sondheim…and it is a very welcome one. John Doyle’s production of Company, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is a delightful addition to the season of revivals on Broadway.
Company, one of the first concept musicals, centers around the life of Robert, a Manhattan bachelor and the good friend of five married couples. He is turning 35 and, at the pressure of his friends, is wondering why he is not married and if he wants to be.
Directed by John Doyle, director of last year’s revival of Sweeney Todd, this production also has the actors doubling as the orchestra, playing their instruments onstage. Each of the company is onstage the entire show, playing instruments as well as acting, singing and dancing.
While this has the potential to be distracting, Doyle’s staging produces the opposite effect. He sets the show on a minimalist stage, with few props other than a grand piano and large glass boxes that the actors, decked out in stark black and white costumes, sit, stand and lean on. When not participating in scenes, the actors retreat to the side of the stage with their instruments.
Instead of being an intrusion, the instruments add to the characters, giving each person and each couple more depth. The number “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” features the trio of women playing saxophones for the notes they would normally sing, enhancing both the humor of the song and the performances of the actresses. When performing duets in the number, “Side by Side by Side,” each half of a couple performs the beginning of a riff and the other half finishes it. When Bobby’s turn comes around, he valiantly blows into a kazoo, but then turns to see no one there to finish what he began. And when the five couples join to sing, “What Would We Do Without You?” to Bobby, they form a literal marching band, with Bobby as the leader and conductor.
Company originally premiered in 1970 and was revived in 1995. Despite the time that has passed, this second Broadway revival does not feel dated. The themes that Sondheim explores – relationships, love, connecting with people or being isolated – are timeless and especially poignant to the show’s New York audience. It is ironic that, in the song, “Sorry/Grateful,” a song that explores the costs and benefits of being married, Sondheim writes the pensive lyric, “Why look for answers when none occur?”
While this show provides no answers, it raises many questions about happiness, fulfillment and fate. In the song, “Someone is Waiting,” Bobby asks of his future wife, “Would I know her, even if I met her? Have I missed her? Would I let her go?”
The disengagement of Bobby’s character is physically embodied by Raul Esparza, an undeniable leading man. In every scene he distances himself from his peers, both physically and emotionally, as he watches their interactions and occasionally provides a witty, double-edged comment. In the opening number, as his friends surround him, he leaps onto the top of the piano to begin his commentary on “those good and crazy people, my married friends.” This separation is further enhanced when it is observed that Bobby is the only person onstage who is not playing a musical instrument.
Despite the emotional limitations of his character, Esparza brings the charm and charisma necessary to Bobby. He views his friends’ relationships with a detached bewilderment that is surprisingly effective and engaging. With a wry cynicism and an occasional raised eyebrow, he observes the domestic bliss and chaos that he is surrounded with, all the while pondering whether or not he wants to become a part of that himself.
And his efforts are not isolated. This cast gives undeniably earnest performances, with Angel Desai shining as the artistic and adventurous Marta. Perched on the piano, singing, “Another Hundred People,” she gives an eager exuberance to the lyrics, while maintaining the wistful undertones of the isolation of life in New York. As Amy, Heather Laws is given a great opportunity with the song, “Not Getting Married Today” and she maximizes every moment of it. Her wide-eyed panic and deadpan humor bring sympathy to someone who is frightened of forever, but still figures out what it is that she wants. And Barbara Walsh’s Joanne manages to bring personality and irony even to the smallest of actions such as playing a single note on a triangle. Given many of the most witty lines in the show, she is also given one of the best numbers. Her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is simply show-stopping.
“Married people are no more marriage than musicians are music,” Bobby is told by his friend Paul. That may be true of this performance as well.