Neil Patrick Harris leads a superstar-studded company in the New York Philharmonic's accomplished and often surprising production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's landmark musical.
So, here's the bottom line: Anyone expecting Lonny Price's superstar-studded production, headed by Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone, to be the defintive -- or even best-sung -- production of this brilliant musical will inevitably feel disappointed; while everyone else can leave with memories of some thrillng and, in some cases, truly surprising work on stage.
Four decades later, this bittersweet and slightly nostalgic look at at-sea bachelor Bobby (Harris), the five married couples who are both his support system and emotional crutch, as well as three women who float into (and out of) his life can still resonate. And there's litle question here that 35-year-old Bobby's unmarital status is purely a result of fear of commitment (yep, still happening too) and not some undecided (or unexamined) sexual persuasion as Harris -- America's most famous openly gay actor -- plays the role straight in every sense of the word.
More importantly, the actor brings his patented charm to the role -- an essential for the audience to believe that everyone on stage, male and female, is in some way enamored with his Bobby -- along with an aching vulnerability that becomes more apparent as the show progresses. (For those with more prurient interests, he does appear shirltess -- and in extremely good shape for a new father -- during "Barcelona".) The one minor flaw in Harris' casting is that Bobby's songs don't fit completely comfortably in his vocal range, and Sondheim's gorgeous melodies are occasionally shortchanged.
That's true in a few of the other songs, as well, but Price makes up for it by emphasizing the still trenchant comedy of Furth's dialogue. If here and there, things can get a tad sitcommy (a feeling somewhat reinforced by James Noone's constantly rolling furniture), Price has wisely entrusted the show's sharpest comic characterizations to such highly accomplished actors as Katie Finneran (hilarious as the neurotic yet lovable Amy), Jennifer Laura Thompson (delicious as the supposedly square Jenny), Christina Hendricks (endearing in a remarkably strong stage debut as the dumb-but-self-aware stewardess April), and the superb Martha Plimpton and Stephen Colbert (a fairly decent singer to boot), who are exceedingly well-matched as battling but devoted couple Sarah and Harry.
Geting her fair share of laughs as well is LuPone as the acerbic Joanne. But it's her devastating rendition of Sondheim's searing "The Ladies Who Lunch" which is the evening's highest point, capturing the song's extraordinary mix of outward-directed venom and inward-directed self-pity. The singular actress also deserves kudos for blending in (as much as she can) to the ensemble, only standing out briefly during the enthralling Act 2 opener "Side by Side by Side (What Would We Do Without You?)," in which Price and choreographer Josh Rhodes pull out all their stops.
The evening's other standout supporting player is Anika Noni Rose, who not only brings out the eccentricity and elan of downtown denizen Marta, but effortlessly performs Sondheim's tricky "Another Hundred People" as if it were little more than "Jingle Bells." Jim Walton as Joanne's patient husband, Larry, and Chryssie Whitehead as Bobby's sometime inamorata Kathy also make memorable contributions. (Whitehead does get to show off some of her first-rate dancing ability in a less-than-effective version of "Tick Tock.") As for the remainder of the principals -- Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Jill Paice, and Aaron Lazar -- they do what is needed.