It may be difficult to imagine, but Stephen Sondheim has been around long enough that one of his earlier hits now qualifies for "period piece" status. Company, Sondheim's 1970 opus on companionship of the married kind, has joined Sweeney Todd in repertory in the four-month-long Sondheim Celebration at The Kennedy Center. The shows are very different from each other in many ways, and the fact that they came from the same composer is testament to the breadth of his talent. But while Sweeney Todd seems as fresh now (revolutionary, actually) as when it premiered 23 years ago, Company appears very much a part of its time. It hasn't gone stale, mind you, but the fun is colored with nostalgia.
Based on a series of George Furth one-acts exploring the pluses and minuses of married life, Company introduces a 35-year-old bachelor and five couples in various stages of pre-, mid-, and post-marriage. Bobby the bachelor, ambivalent about marriage based on what he sees of his friends' relationships, is nonetheless tiring of the single life. His friends can't wait for him to settle down; but do they care about his happiness, or does misery just love company?
Furth wrote the book of the musical and Sondheim provided the songs, one of which, "The Ladies Who Lunch," added a durable image to our cultural vocabulary and a phrase that is with us still. When it opened on Broadway in the spring of 1970, Company was immediately hailed as something quite new, a "concept musical." That's because the show doesn't present a story with a linear plot so much as it examines a theme; its songs analyze that theme rather than advance the tale. Audiences loved it and Company won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Fast forward to 2002. John Barrowman and Lynn Redgrave, under the firm direction of Sean Mathias, have taken to the stage of the Eisenhower Theatre in a fully-produced revival of the show with a 26-member orchestra conducted by the show's orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick. Rather than try to present Company as a contemporary look at the battle between the sexes, Mathias has wisely kept it firmly in the Age of Aquarius, complete with bean bag chairs, wide lapels, and flared trousers--even hot pants for the women. The music charts occasionally remind us of that uneasy time when big bands tried to sound a bit like rock and roll and disco was just over the horizon. Though the characters and vignettes of the show are not seen through a modern, post-feminist prism, they are still very much with us. Oddly enough, the message of Company is decidedly pro-marriage and family, more at home in George Bush's America than in the "do your own thing" days of flower power. Bobby, though put off by the problems he sees in his friends' marriages, is very much attracted to the benefits.
If that sounds a bit disorienting, wait until you see Derek McLane's breathtaking set. The curtain rises after only a few bars of music to reveal an eye-popping barrage of color and altered perspective. It takes several moments before it becomes clear that we are seeing a Manhattan cityscape from a bird's eye view, looking straight down on lit-up skyscrapers that run along both sides of the stage and are suspended over it, tapering off into a brightly hued and ever-shifting infinity at the rear. The floor is barren, with props and pieces moved in on pulleys when necessary. Scene changes are augmented by shifting patterns, projected in the "infinite" space, that are reminiscent of video effects common 32 years ago and therefore add to the period flavor.
The advertising for the production focuses on Lynn Redgrave, but John Barrowman as Bobby is the star...and his co-star is Alice Ripley as the soon-to-be-married Amy. Barrowman has a soaring baritone and is a capable leading man, especially effective and moving at the end of the show in the poignant "Being Alive." His facial expressions, however, tend to undercut our understanding of his character's supposed angst; Barrowman continually flashes a toothy smile that seems to display cunning, and while that look has helped the actor to play a series of slick characters on television, it makes one wonder if his Bobby isn't just a player who likes it that way. The sudden ending of the show, which director Mathias deliberately leaves ambiguous, doesn't help in this regard.
Ripley brings Company to a complete stop, eliciting boisterous and sustained audience reaction with her all-out performance of "Getting Married Today," the rapid and exceedingly difficult patter song that leads to the end of Act One. Dressed in designer Catherine Zuber's ridiculous wedding gown, a contraption that tries to blend tradition with the mini-skirt look of the day, Ripley races through a series of jumbled thoughts and doubts, backed up by an angelic chorus of bridesmaids. It is the highlight of the show.
Barrowman and the ensemble open Act Two with some evocative choreography from Jodi Moccia in "Side by Side by Side," the number that is at the heart of Company. Mingling with all five of the couples, Bobby ends up realizing that he is dancing alone as one of the husbands observes: "A person like Bob doesn't have the good things. He doesn't have the bad things, either. But he doesn't have the good things."
Lynn Redgrave has taken the role of Joanne, which Elaine Stritch made famous in the original production, She appears to be trying to channel Stritch, copying her look and vocal mannerisms, but it is not a perfect fit. Speaking in an unnaturally low register may be straining her voice for she seems to be holding back in her big number, "The Ladies Who Lunch," often barely audible as she saves her strength for the big finish. She does hit those high notes, but the rest of the performance is diminished.