Monday 19 March 2012

Sondheim's Company, or Third Time Round is the Charm

Note: This is a review of the repeat cinema relay of this semi-staged (actually pretty fully staged) performance from the Lincoln Centre in 2011.

It's my impression that Company is one of Sondheim's best known and most often performed shows. I came to it late, having developed a love of Sondheim through Into the Woods, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. This was the third time I'd seen it live, and on the previous two occasions somehow it just hadn't worked for me. This wasn't because there aren't wonderful musical numbers, or telling scenes, or (at least on the second occasion in Sheffield last December) great performances, but it just didn't get me emotionally in the way that those other Sondheim shows have. On this viewing, I came to the conclusion that this is because there is absolutely no room to hide in this show, and you can't afford to have any weak links. That is, it isn't enough here to get some scenes and songs right, to have a couple of individually great performances – you need an outstanding ensemble across the board – and you need them to get not just the money notes, not just the laugh lines, but those small telling little moments in which the work's emotional centre lies. It is a measure of how challenging it is in this particular show, that even this enormously talented cast can't nail everything but it is so very nearly there that I forgave them the moment or two where I felt a line needed something more.

At the centre of the performance's success was Neil Patrick Harris's Bobby. Harris has the effortless charm, grace and good looks which the part needs, but he also possessed the emotional weight to make me care about a character who can seem a little tiresome. Harris also manages the role's vocal demands, with blazing performances of Marry Me a Little and Being Alive.

The biggest other name in the line up was Patti LuPone as Joanne. Not disimilarly to Francesca Annis in the Sheffield production I thought she wasn't quite there in The Little Things You Do Together and this was the one place where I would quibble with Gemignani's tempi – I think this is a number where there needs to be a slow enough pace for the archness of it to really have its effect – and both at Sheffield and in this relay I found it rushed. However, Joanne's big number comes in Act Two, The Ladies Who Lunch, and this LuPone absolutely nailed. She nails it because she has a superb voice over which she can then lay the drunkenness, the sarcasm, the bitterness. But to really work, to slam you back in your seat which is what the number has to do it needs first that vocal quality. LuPone duly spellbinds.

Other equally fine musical performances come from Katie Finneran's Amy in Getting Married Today and Anika Noni Rose as Marta in Another Hundred People. Finneran never misses a word or fails to make them count, Rose has the ability not just to get the words out but also to soar warmly in the more lyrical sections. Finally, among the women especially worthy of mention (though it is important to say there isn't a weak link) was Chryssie Whitehead's Kathy. Her voice isn't quite right for the solo in You Could Drive a Person Crazy but she has a wonderful quirkiness of expression which makes up for it. The scene where she makes it clear to Bobby that she would have married him if he'd ever asked was movingly done. Every time she was on stage there was something in her face that held me. I shall hope to see her on Broadway in a larger role some time soon.

The men (apart from Bobby) have significantly less to do in this show but all of the ensemble give strong, telling characterisations. Behind them the New York Philharmonic delivered a sparkling performance of the score and Paul Germignani's conducting was spot on with the one tiny exception already mentioned.

I mentioned at the top the fact that this is actually a fairly extensively staged production, directed by Lonny Price. I rather pitied the poor ensemble singers who got to join in one or two choruses and spent the rest of the show whizzing everybody else around on sofas (although several of the girls got a moment in the sun in the dance number (Tick Tock)). Frankly there was almost as much staging as in the fully staged Sheffield performances and I never felt the lack of anything in that respect. The finest choreography (the work of Josh Rhodes) comes in the Act Two opener Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You. This is one of many places in this show where it's terribly easy to go wrong. It is a pastiche of the classic musical chorus line but it has to be a pastiche with bite and edge, a scene where Bobby is walking a precipice and suddenly that blank emptiness that there is no one beside him stares him in the face. This was wittily, bitingly done.

This evening, looking for something to listen to on the walk to a choir rehearsal, I put my CD of Company on. For the first time I didn't feel like skipping songs, and listening to them my mind was back watching these performers in action. It was then I knew this show had finally got me; proof that cinema can transmit successfully the magic of live performance. More Broadway relays please.

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