Phone Rings, Door Chimes, In Comes A Mixed Production of Company

[Note: This review was written for a theater appreciation course about a year ago and I’ve been questioning whether or not to publish it for what feels like ages, in part due to it being the first public preview of the show and in part due to the fact that the show closed early (and before I could snag a rewatch) due to COVID. But, I figure, at this point, why not? All this said, I will absolutely be getting a ticket to watch it again once Broadway re-opens and I am very excited to see if it takes a new form. Despite all my frustrations with the show, it is also one of the best memories I have of 2020 and my best friend Kyle Turner wrote about it beautifully over here.]

Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s Company — a brilliant concept musical that is built up of vignettes rather than featuring a traditional linear narrative — has stood the test of time for five decades now, asking over and over again whether or not we can find someone to make us truly aware of being alive. The show has been adapted and toyed with directionally in a number of ways since its initial opening in 1970, from John Doyle’s 2006 production that featured the actors themselves as their own musical accompaniment (stripping the show of an orchestra in favor of sparse but effective musicality) to Marianne Elliott’s 2018 West End revival that made changes to the gender of several characters, most notably the show’s protagonist Bobby (now Bobbie).

Elliott’s transfer of her West End production to Broadway opened for previews on Monday, March 2nd, before which the director appeared in front of the audience and noted, rather playfully after a massive round of applause, that the audience might not be so warm and welcoming after the show ended. She warned there had only been one dress rehearsal prior to the evening’s performance, joking rather casually that the show might take a little longer to get along than expected (though discovering that Sondheim himself was in the audience made the notice come across like a preemptive apology). But despite an untraditionally long intermission of over half an hour, and a few forgotten and mixed-up words from a number of performers, the first preview of Company went off without much fault in execution. Some aspects of the production itself, however, left quite a bit to be desired.

Sondheim and Furth’s show is about Bobbie, a single woman who lives in New York City and whose friends are all married or engaged couples: Joanne and Larry, Peter and Susan, Harry and Sarah, David and Jenny, and Paul and Jamie. The show opens by introducing the viewer to Bobbie on her 35th birthday through voicemails from her friends, aptly summing up their personalities in just a few simple lines. The always neurotic Jamie, for instance, reveals to Bobbie that her friends are throwing her a surprise party accidentally, and immediately tries to correct his error (and fails miserably). As noted earlier, the show is split up rather interestingly into vignettes of Bobbie interacting with her friends and lovers — Andy (formerly April), the naïve flight attendant; Theo (formerly Kathy), the charming small-town man; and PJ (formerly Marta), the faux-hip bohemian — and confronting her inability to commit to anyone but her friends in a meaningful way as she approaches middle age.

Past productions of Company have used their staging to different effect. Doyle’s production, a diamond-shaped upper-class décor living room, suited his cast well for easy movement and instrument playing, while Sam Mendes’ production stripped the show of much of its joie de vivre and energy for the sake of emphasizing how Bobby’s friends are more of a specter than a comfort (which, while interesting conceptually, resulted in one of the least engaging productions of the show). Elliott’s staging for the Broadway transfer mimics many of the same decisions present in her West End staging, most notably the use of massive, moving boxes within the proscenium stage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

These boxes — some square, others rectangular, occasionally inhabiting only a small space of the stage, and sometimes spanning its width, but almost always bordered and highlighted by simply bright LED lighting — represent the boxes in which Bobbie exists. Bobbie’s life is essentially compartmentalized into her experiences with couples, with lovers, and with herself, so it only makes sense that the staging of the show would compartmentalize these same things. Within these boxes, the set décor is almost antiseptic, as though meant to be part of a particularly impersonal display at IKEA. With Bobbie’s narrative arc being about the realization that she needs to grow and commit “to somebody, not just some body”, it makes sense that her home (and what she perceives her friend’s homes to be) would be the kind of places that people live in, but that aren’t actually lived in. They move smoothly across the stage, sometimes even popping up from below the ground (and back in), with all sorts of doors and holes available for actors to pop in and out of, sometimes to beautifully comedic effect. There’s a certain modernity to the staging that takes a timeless story and makes it present, though the inclusion of selfie taking to some of the set pieces is a bit eye-roll inducing despite fitting with the performative nature of relationships (which now, more than ever, is deeply reliant on how we posture via social media).

There are exceptions to this form of staging within the show though. One sequence between Jenny, David, and Bobbie getting high on their front porch is smartly set on a series of porches that all look identical, from the number to the door frame to the steps to climb up, only serving to emphasize the boxed in world in which Bobbie lives in (and subtly doubling as a critique of certain types of New York City architecture and the people that live within these establishments). Bobbie’s solo numbers — “Marry Me A Little”, “Someone Is Waiting”, and the finale “Being Alive”, all framed as revelatory moments for the character — remove all sets, leaving the character on stage alone, singing in the proscenium with simple white lighting against an empty black backdrop.

Beyond these, if there’s a moment where the show’s set work falters, it’s in the staging and execution of “Another Hundred People.” The song, performed by Bobbie’s lover PJ and stalled three times for the sake of three distinct conversations between Bobbie and her lovers, ditches the boxes that populate much of the show and instead brings out a collection of glowing letters that spell out the show’s title. About a dozen actors — built up of both the main cast and ensemble figures that only showed up for this and one other number (“Tick-Tock”, which is frequently removed, but brought back to delightful effect here) — move across the stage and around the letters as though mimicking New Yorkers on their daily commutes, sometimes rearranging the letters on stage dances and sings around them about it being “a city of strangers.”

Once “Another Hundred People” ends and Bobbie and PJ get a chance to sit down and have their own conversation, four of the seven letters are removed, leaving three for the pair to sit on: NYC. It’s an embarrassingly on-the-nose decision for a show that, for the most part, smartly approaches the city itself and how hard it can be to maintain relationships within it. And the instability of the moving letters resulted in a fair amount of shaking with every actor gesture, enough so that PJ’s prop guitar fell, prompting actor Bobby Conte Thornton to break character mid-monologue to make sure it hadn’t broken (in a way that was completely antithetical to the text about his carefree nature he was delivering). The movement of the letters themselves during the number was more of a mess than anything else, awkwardly choreographed in a distracting manner. As one viewer noted, the West End production smartly maintained the box theme by forcing the actors to exist inside of it and pass through it as a reflection of the lyrics, “Another hundred people just got off of the train…” With that in mind, it’s a wonder why Elliott would sacrifice the consistency of her staging and themes in this number for such unwieldy props.

It was often riveting to see what Elliott and her cast could do within the constraints of the stage (and the sets within the stage) though. The aforementioned “Tick-Tock”, for instance, relies on a number of trap doors and ensemble members — each dressed to mirror Bobbie and Andy as they age in a vision of what time and a “stable” relationship would offer her — to emphasize the anxiety that comes with consistency (which is, ultimately, Bobbie’s greatest fear, despite being the opposite of the typical anxiety of uncertainty many a stage character faces). And the show’s Act Two opening set piece, “Side by Side by Side” and “What Would We Do Without You?”, offers beautifully contained chaos by having the couples that Bobbie surrounds herself with engage in an elaborately choreographed sequence that features everything from patty cake to singing on tables.

With each production of Company comes one essential question though: will the actor playing Bobby/Bobbie be the show’s strength, or will they be overshadowed by the ensemble of wacky characters? The strongest productions of the show have both, with Doyle’s production being one of the most exciting. As excellent as Raúl Esparza is as Bobby, the rest of his cast are just as talented and game for exploring the ways their characters serve as both complement and contrast to his (general lack of) personality. Elliott’s production, unfortunately, suffers from its lack of a strong presence with Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. Occasionally, an actor (and director duo) leans into the concept of Bobby/Bobbie as a blank slate, his persona built around being the go-to-guy for those around him and getting to know the people he claims he loves. It’s the kind of performance choice that could go horribly wrong, resulting in a lifeless Bobby/Bobbie, and yet, to say that Lenk was making this choice would be a generous claim.

It’d be one thing to call the performance insincere or calculated, but, realistically, Lenk’s acting (and singing) feels lazy, more than anything else. When she sings, “But alone is alone, not alive; somebody crowd me with love, somebody force me to care; somebody let me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive,” there’s no gravitas, no dependence, no hesitance, no determination. It’s not just that her voice isn’t suited for the notes Bobbie has to hit, or that each of her solo numbers (which, as stated before, removes all pop-up sets and leaves the actress to sing on a barren stage with one spotlight fixed on her) sound like she’s struggling to get through it. It is, inevitably, a fundamental inability to convey every mixed emotion that the character is dealing with through either singing or acting.

Though likely what brought such a large audience to the theater for this particular staging, Patti LuPone doesn’t quite suit the role of Joanne as well as she (and many a queer man who performatively laughed at every line she dryly delivered) thinks she does. Both Bobbie and Joanne need a certain level of vulnerability to their characters, their solo numbers, and their interactions, and both Lenk and LuPone are severely lacking in that department. LuPone plays Joanne as coarse and brings the rough exterior of her star persona to the role, instead of actually inhabiting the characters. Yes, this results in a standing ovation for her latest rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch” (which she’s done better in both Lonny Price’s 2011 staging, featuring a god-awful Neil Patrick Harris, and in Elliott’s West End production more recently), but it’s a hollow performance instead of a tragic one. It’s also exhausting to see the way LuPone leans into her vocal tics and eccentricities for a song that isn’t necessarily arranged to suit them (which is why Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical idiosyncrasies have always felt more suited for her beautiful voice than Sondheim’s, though she’s certainly impressed in works of his like Sweeney Todd and Gypsy).

If Lenk and LuPone were meant to be the draw, it’s odd that they serve as the weakest links in the cast, with the supporting cast frequently outshining them, including a couple of truly noteworthy performances in Company canon. Sarah and Harry, a couple designed to exist in a perpetual tug-of-war between love and loathing (as best described in the song “Sorry-Grateful”) are two of the best here, with Jennifer Simard’s Sarah stealing practically every scene she’s in. Clad head to toe in the kind of tacky athleisure that every well-off, middle-aged white woman throws on when embarking on her latest diet, Simard embraces the physical comedy that comes with Sarah’s character beautifully. She’s laugh-out-loud funny in both slapstick and verbal humor and well paired with Christopher Sieber, who plays up his jokey lines as well as he serves as her ideal straight man.

Where the top-billed women are lacking in emotion, Etai Benson brings a vulnerability to the role of Paul that isn’t always present. The way he looks at his husband-to-be, even during Jamie’s nervous breakdown, comes across as sincere in a disarming manner. Paul is often relegated to the sidelines — overshadowed by the neurosis and power that comes with the fast-paced show-stopper “Getting Married Today” which actor Matt Doyle delivered almost perfectly in this production — but Benson manages to take the one-note character and make him feel like a real human being. Their “Getting Married Today” number is only made better by the presence of actress Nikki Renée Daniels, who plays Jenny (and doubles as the angelic voice narrating Jamie’s breakdown tune) with both playfulness and tenderness. She and Christopher Fitzgerald are a match made in heaven as Jenny and David, and their performances are particularly unique to watch as their actions as a couple are gender-flipped by comparison to the norm. Where Jenny is typically depicted as the square, David takes this role when the players are smoking weed together, allowing Fitzgerald to get as camp as he wants (while still presenting as a straight-laced man). There’s a simple beauty to Daniels’ performance that balances the stern with the playful, and seeing her name listed as understudy for the character of Bobbie makes one wonder what she’d look like in the role instead of Lenk.

And though each of Bobbie’s lovers have a limited on-stage presence, the production was blessed enough to have Claybourne Elder as Andy. If Thornton’s PJ was a disappointment, Elder was a revelation, nailing every ditsy beat that comes with the character. It’s not that it’s a hard role to properly manage (and numerous women in the past have delivered top tier April performances, including Christina Hendricks), but not every actor can nail the kind of hot and aloof figure that is culturally embraced (say, like a Marilyn Monroe type). Andy’s fun, flirty, and a feeble conversationalist, and Elder’s comic timing — especially in the speech that precedes the humorous number “Barcelona” — is just perfect.

Walking out of Company, it’s hard not to wonder whether it’ll improve beyond previews. The show is one of Sondheim’s most unique and features many of his strengths — most inherent to the music and book itself and not necessarily reliant on the performers or director — but with it comes a lot of room for error when something doesn’t fit quite right. By emphasizing the “musical comedy” aspect of the show and featuring a Bobbie that is lackluster at best, Marianne Elliott’s Broadway staging of Company loses sight of the dramatic heft at its core. It’s neither the best, or the worst, production of the show, but it is disappointing to see something with so much charm and energy (as well as a generally exciting staging concept that aptly reflects its protagonist’s journey) waste a lot of its potential.

Neurotic queer Latinx. Programmer for Flaming Classics. Florida Film Critics Circle. Writer for Miami New Times, Dim the House Lights, and more.

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