Raúl Esparza and cast in Company(Photo © Sandy Underwood)
Raúl Esparza and cast in Company
(Photo © Sandy Underwood)
Director John Doyle's thrilling new interpretation of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd wowed critics and theatergoers in London and New York, and the Broadway production is going strong at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. As you probably know by now even if you haven't seen it, the actors in this show also serve as the orchestra, singing and/or speaking while playing violins, celli, trumpets, triangles, tubas, etc. Another part of Doyle's conceit is that the performers seldom look at each other when delivering spoken or sung dialogue, instead playing straight out to the audience. All of this works brilliantly for Sweeney, set in a milieu far removed from the experience of today's audiences (Victorian London) and established as presentational in style from the very first line of the show ("Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd"). But would a similar approach be viable for other musicals?

This question was asked by Sondheim acolytes when it was announced that Doyle would be directing Company for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Here's a show about a bachelor named Robert and his interaction with his married friends and girlfriends, all of them living in Manhattan circa 1970. Of course, Company is not written in an entirely realistic style if only for the fact that it's a musical, and people don't tend to break into song in the middle of Manhattan dinner parties or right after having sex in someone's well-appointed apartment. But the show's book, by George Furth, consists of a series of vignettes in which people speak in a way that more or less apes naturalistic, contemporary conversations. So it's difficult to explain why the concept of actors playing musical instruments while taking part in the action -- and, at other times, while seated around the periphery of the stage -- works at all in the Cincinnati production. But it sure does, in a wonderfully metaphorical way. And the fact that the performers usually look at the audience rather than at each other during their dialogue exchanges is an apt metaphor for the disconnectedness of modern urbanites.

The production design is all of a piece with Doyle's vision. I've always thought of Company as irrevocably tied to the time period when it was written and set; the hilarious pot smoking scene and references to answering services, the Seagrams building, etc. in the lyrics would seem to pin the show to 1970 (or within a few years of that). But Doyle and set designer David Gallo have effectively placed the action in a more or less timeless space that suggests a trendy Manhattan loft on the night of a swanky social gathering. Other than a grand piano, the main features of the set are a white, Greco/Roman column rising from a circular white radiator and several plexiglass cubes on which the performers sometimes sit. Ann Hould-Ward's stylish costumes are virtually all black; this even applies to Amy's wedding dress, but the idea is so beautifully integrated into the show as a whole that it didn't really register in my consciousness until the wedding breakfast scene was nearly over.

Any concerns that Raúl Esparza might be too dynamic a performer for the role of Bobby, who more or less functions as a blank slate upon which the neuroses of his friends and lovers are writ, are dispelled by this extraordinary actor's expertly calibrated performance. He underplays the part with offhand humor and the occasional wry observation until the penultimate scene; when this Bobby shouts "Stop!" to finally silence the nattering of his married friends, it's a primal scream from the soul, so violent and seemingly throat-searing that Esparza's subsequent, gorgeous singing of the cathartic "Being Alive" is all the more astounding. Another stunning Doyle touch: Robert is the only character who never plays a musical instrument during the show (except for one cymbal crash) until he sits down at the piano to play and sing "Being Alive," as if only now able to express his true feelings. (The song "Marry Me a Little" has been restored and is movingly performed by Esparza as a fittingly ambivalent ending to Act I.)

The performances of the actor-musicians who play Bobby's married buddies are, for the most part, exemplary: Kristin Huffman and Keith Buterbaugh as Sarah and Harry, both attempting without much success to control their addictions (she to food, he to booze); Amy Justman and Matt Castle as Susan and Peter, who decide that divorce is the best way to maintain their relationship; Leenya Rideout and Fred Rose as Jenny and David, whose experimentation with marijuana is both hilarious and touching; Heather Laws as the skittish bride-to-be Amy and Robert Cunningham as Paul, her devoted groom; Barbara Walsh as the caustic Joanne and Bruce Sabath as her long-suffering spouse, Larry. Walsh is refreshing as a younger, sexier version of Joanne than we're used to seeing -- although, truth to tell, she doesn't deliver "The Ladies Who Lunch" with the ferocity necessary to make this the knockout 11 o'clock number it's supposed to be.

Now to Bobby's lady friends. Elizabeth Stanley is wonderful as the stewardess April, avoiding the stereotype of playing the character like a bimbo. (She and Esparza give a perfect reading of the "Barcelona" scene, despite the fact that there is no bed on stage for this post-coital number and both performers are fully clothed.) As Kathy, Kelly Jeanne Grant is warm and sincere in her one scene with Robert; otherwise, she doesn't have much to do, since the "Tick Tock" dance is not performed in this production. (It was conceived as a showcase for Donna McKechnie, who created the role on Broadway.) Angel Desai is the right type for the quirky Marta and lands some big laughs with her loopy dialogue, but she has some vocal trouble with the difficult solo "Another Hundred People."

The show simply wouldn't work without the excellent orchestrations of Mary Mitchell-Campbell. One's mind boggles at the effort involved in reorchestrating the superb Sondheim score according to the abilities of the various actors-musicians. (I don't even want to think about what happens when an understudy has to go on.) If Mitchell-Campbell doesn't win a Tony Award when this Company transfers to Broadway, as it inevitably will, I'll eat my hat.

There are very few disappointments in the production. Though Doyle is credited as director-choreographer, there's little actual choreography here, and it is missed in a few places -- most notably in Bobby's girlfriends' Andrews Sisters-esque lament, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Thomas C. Hase's lighting could use some fine-tuning. Because the cast members who play instruments that must be blown into can't play while singing, the climaxes of one or two numbers -- particularly the title song -- are quite thin from an orchestral standpoint. And I miss the "Vocal Minority" orchestra voices that were employed in the original production but were expunged from the revised performance edition of Company that was established some years ago. However, these reservations amount to little in the scheme of things.

John Doyle should be profusely thanked by those of us who have reacted badly to other revisionist stagings of great musicals and thus have left ourselves open to the charge that we are stodgy traditionalists, unwilling to accept change in the form of new interpretations of acknowledged masterpieces. As this Company proves, it's possible to present a classic show in a bold, new way that even theatrical conservatives can applaud because it doesn't violate the spirit of the work or the creators' intentions. Bravo to Doyle -- and to everyone involved in this marvelous production, bravi!