By Mark A. Newman
Photos by Scott Suchman
After a 2012 – 2013 season that got off to a less-than-stellar start with Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, all is forgiven after Signature Theatre’s rapturous season finale with Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Aside from a 2005 revival of Pacific Overtures, I’ve yet to see a Sondheim show that can match Company for being about as perfect as a piece of theatre can be [Note: I have never seen Merrily We Roll Along but love the score]. The problem with Company is its popularity; you can’t help but compare the production you’re watching with the one you saw previously. For me, it was the Lincoln Center concert version starting Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby and Patti LuPone as Joanne in an ensemble that included Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, Christina Hendricks, and Craig Bierko.
That’s a hard cast to live up to, but by golly the skilled ensemble assembled by director Eric Schaeffer does a brilliant job. Schaeffer’s direction was exceptionally fluid and incorporated more choreography than I think I’ve ever seen in this show. Matthew Gardiner’s choreography is a perfect accompaniment to Sondheim’s '70s-era pop score as he has the actors gliding up and down a main staircase and around the levels that serve as the main stage. The moves are logical without being dull, and intricate without being complicated, basically something any New Yorker at a cocktail party on the Upper East Side could do, without spilling a drop of their vodka stinger.
However, that aforementioned '70s score is one of Company’s greatest strengths as well as one of its weaknesses. The music, lyrics, and much of the show’s sentiment firmly ensconces the world of perennial bachelor Bobby (an adorable and exceedingly likable Matthew Scott) firmly in the era of Nixon, Laugh-In, and the Vietnam War. It’s not that any of those are mentioned but it’s a feel that the show embodies. Lyrics that refer to an answering service or Marta asking Bobby if he has any black or Puerto Rican friends clearly indicate that this is not a show taking place in the age of RENT.
But would we want it to?
The fact that it takes place in another era is part of the show’s charm and the staging keeps it from being antiquated. As do the costumes (by Frank Labovitz) and the hairstyles. Bobby’s product-laden coif is more Chelsea of the '90s than Park Avenue of the '70s. It would seem that if we’re watching a fable from that era then EVERYTHING needs to be consistent otherwise there’s an imbalance to the show. That one line about having black or Puerto Rican friends is the one line that keeps the show from being multi-cultural. It’s the one statement that prohibits the show from progressing into our own modern era. Would an Upper East Sider really have to ask a fellow New Yorker if they had minority friends in this day and age? Only if they were a Romney.
Then again, does this incongruous dichotomy between what we hear and what we see impact the theatre-going experience? Only for an idiot critic. However, there are likely some who might question a few of the phrases, e.g., “Boy hoo boy!” in “Have I Got a Girl For You.” Boy hoo boy? Who says that? Who ever said that? Wouldn’t “Boy oh boy” be a more acceptable turn of phrase?
But the overarching themes of the show are as relevant now as they ever were. Bobby seems to be the glue that holds his gaggle of friends together. They only seem to gather as a group when Bobby is somehow involved. You have to wonder if Joanne and Larry would hang out with Susan and Peter if Bobby wasn’t around. I doubt it. The couples don’t have any interaction with one another independent of Bobby; they appear to only have a fleeting familiarity with one another as evidenced by Joanne’s comment on Susan’s Southern charm at the top of the show. Without Bobby these couples – and the trio of single ladies Bobby is stringing along – would cease to exist in the world in which we view them.
The second act opener “Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You” really hammer this point home. When asked what they would do without you to Bobby, he simply replies, “Just what you usually do.” This indicates that Bobby doesn’t view himself the way we do. While we see him as the force that holds these people together, Bobby almost has a George Bailey view of his world; his friends would be the same with or without him. We know that’s not true, but gives a bit of insight into Bobby’s wayward balancing act as he meanders through life. However, right up until the very last song it’s evident that Bobby is adored by his friends and their singular goal seems to be to make sure he’s happy.
Scott’s portrayal of Bobby is rare in that this Bobby is actually likable. Raul Esparza’s performance was magnificent in the last Broadway revival but with his Bobby you wouldn’t be surprised to discover there were dead hookers in his crawl space. Harris’ aforementioned Bobby was brilliantly buoyant but a bit on the douchey side, a character Harris has perfected. And although I didn’t see it, I can only imagine that Boyd Gaines’ Bobby was very Jimmy Stewarty with an abundance of “aw shucks” annoyance (because that’s how he plays everything), while the clips I’ve seen of the original Bobbys of Larry Kert and Dean Jones show different men, one with an underlying secret, the other who’s somewhat disengaged. Then again, you shouldn’t judge a performance by a grainy YouTube video. Wow, talk about a multitude of Bobbys!
The truth is that the weight of the entire show rests on the success of whether the actor playing Bobby can pull it off. Otherwise you’d have to wonder what all these people see in this guy. Scott’s winning portrayal should leave no question in anyone’s mind what Bobby’s friends see in him; he’s a sweetheart, considerate, and really doesn’t seem to have any ulterior motives. We should all have a friend like Bobby.
The characters in Bobby’s orbit aren’t a particularly diverse bunch. Then again, how could they be? It’s New York City and we’re watching a bunch of white Upper East Siders eat, drink, and toke. As brilliant as Company is, 75% of the actors are stuck in truly thankless roles and only a few of them get to shine in solos.
First and foremost in Bobby’s entourage is Joanne – made famous by the irascible Elaine Stritch – and here played by Signature’s resident comic genius Sherri L. Edelen. When it was announced that Signature would be closing the season with Company, I knew that only Edelen could play this role. While she won’t make you forget Stritchy, Barbara Walsh in the recent Broadway revival, or La LuPone, Edelen’s Joanne is a completely different animal from what we’re used to seeing. Still a boozy older broad, this Joanne is more in the vein of an Auntie Mame than a black widow; she’s fun, crass, sassy, and Edelen’s uproarious laugh brings some much-needed levity to the character. Her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is more of a celebratory showstopper than an ode to bitterness and Edelen brings down the house.
Signature fave Carolyn Cole makes Marta a standout. As one of Bobby’s flings, Cole’s Marta is a funky downtown chick and she belts one of the show’s most popular numbers “Another Hundred People” with pizazz and gusto. Cole plays Marta with a more devil-may-care joie de vivre than just being kooky for kooky’s sake. It’s obvious what Bobby sees in her but it’s just as obvious that these two have no chance in hell of working out in the long run.
Madeline Botteri’s April – the ditsy flight attendant – is another standout. Botteri plays the girl who always wanted to live in Radio City as awash in innocence and you really feel her pain when she talks about the injured butterfly. Sexy and unassuming, Botteri played April as one of the many seemingly lost souls that surround our man Bobby.
As Amy – one of the most memorable roles in the ensemble – Erin Weaver is neurotic knockout. While Amy tries to figure out exactly which way to go on her wedding day, Weaver plays this dingbat with a layered authenticity that makes you want to slap her even though you totally empathize with her if you’ve ever been in this situation. “Getting Married Today” was truly a star-making turn for Weaver, who has had plenty of such turns in past Signature shows (her Kathy in Signature’s Last Five Years was sublime).
The rest of the cast was all exceptional and it was great to see some great actors from great shows (Matthew Gardiner, Erin Driscoll) as well as some great actors from not-so-great shows (Thomas Adrian Simpson, Tracy Lynn Olivera) blend their voices to create a truly remarkable ensemble. The only sour note was Amy Conley replacing Sandy Bainum’s Susan; her Southern accent seemed forced and she didn’t seem at all comfortable in the role. Maybe she had to step in at the last minute, maybe it was her first time in the role, but it was a noticeable weak link in a very strong chain.
Book by George Furth
Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Choreography: Matthew Gardiner
Music Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
Costume Design: Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
Tickets: Ticketmaster (703) 573-SEAT (7328)
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206