Raúl Esparza stars in Sweeney Todd director John Doyle's brilliant reinterpretation of another Stephen Sondheim masterpiece.
John Doyle's thrilling production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in which the singing actors doubled as the show's orchestra, wowed critics and theatergoers in London and New York. Still, some observers wondered if a similar concept would be work for other shows. The answer, at least in the case of Doyle's reintepretation of Sondheim's Company, is a definite yes.
Company is about a bachelor named Robert and his interaction with his married friends and girlfriends, all of them living in Manhattan circa 1970. The show's book scenes, by George Furth, are vignettes about marriage and relationships in the big city. When this production premiered earlier this year at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, it was clear that the concept of actors playing musical instruments while taking part in the action -- and, at other times, while seated at the periphery of the stage -- illuminated the material in a wonderful, new way. As for the characters tending not to look at each other during their dialogue exchanges, and/or carrying on conversations with lots of space between them, that seemed an apt metaphor for the disconnectedness of modern urbanites.
Now that Doyle's Company has transferred to Broadway with its cast and production team intact, audiences in larger numbers will be able to marvel at what the director has wrought. I've always thought of this show as irrevocably tied to the time period when it was written and set, but Doyle and scenic 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 or stand. Looming overhead is a huge lighting fixture that resembles a bunch of old camera flashbulbs/reflectors suspended upside down. Ann Hould-Ward's stylish costumes are virtually all black. Thomas C. Hase's lighting helps to create the sense of different spaces on the unit set and isolates the central character at key moments.
Raúl Esparza is superb as Robert, underplaying the part with offhand humor and the occasional wry observation until the penultimate scene. Bobby pretty much functions as a blank slate upon which the neuroses of his friends and lovers are writ, but in this extraordinary performance, the guy obviously has a whole lot going on beneath the surface. When he finally shouts "Stop!" to 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.
The actors-musicians who play Bobby's married buddies are all terrific: Kristin Huffman and Keith Buterbaugh as Sarah and Harry, both attempting without much success to control their addictions; Amy Justman and Matt Castle as Susan and Peter, who divorce but continue to live together; 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.
Now to Bobby's lady friends. Elizabeth Stanley is charming as the stewardess April, deftly avoiding the stereotype of playing the character like a complete bimbo. Kelly Jeanne Grant as Kathy is warm and sincere in her scene with Esparza; otherwise, she doesn't have much to do, since the "Tick Tock" dance is not performed in this production. Angel Desai lands some big laughs with Marta's loopy dialogue and does a fine job 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 rejiggering the great Sondheim score according to the abilities of the various performers. (I don't even want to think about what happens when a standby has to go on.)