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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Company (Blu-ray)
Company (Blu-ray)
Image // Unrated // May 20, 2008 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 13, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
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Recommended
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One of the pleasures of ravenously writing Blu-ray reviews is that I'm occasionally exposed to material I would never have thought to seek out otherwise. That's certainly the case for Company, John Doyle's minimalist revival of the seminal Stephen Sondheim musical. I have to admit to having shamefully little knowledge of musical theatre myself, but after being completely won over by Company's razor-sharp wit and infectious musical numbers, I'm certainly eager to see more of what the theatre has to offer.

This reinterpretation of Company stars Raúl Esparza as Bobby, a perpetually single thirtysomething in a circle of upscale married couples in New York. Rather than follow a traditional narrative, Company is told through a series of vignettes as Bobby settles into the role of third wheel with each of his married friends. As relentlessly as his pals try to convince Bobby that he needs to be married, the men clearly envy his freedom,
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the wives are carried away with fits of romantic fancy, and everyone seems to be careening off the edge from the compromises and personality clashes inherent to marriage. Practically out of a sense of obligation, he starts thumbing through a list of old girlfriends, but they're either dim-witted and completely at ease with that, borderline-insane, or already spoken for.

It's a story about adulthood...about coming to grips that the concept of marriage swirling around Bobby's mind -- a union with an impossibly perfect woman free of compromises and headaches -- just doesn't exist. It's a harsh realization that nearly everyone can relate to, and even though Company is a comedy, its insight into the nature of love and happiness packs an effective dramatic punch as well. New York is the ideal setting for the musical, but even though Bobby feels hopelessly alone in a city teeming with twenty million people, those same feelings of isolation are nearly universal.

I don't want to make Company sound excessively bleak or downbeat, though. In the same way that They Might Be Giants have mastered the art of weaving depressing lyrics about embittered fights and divorce around bursts of humor and infectiously poppy melodies, Company blends its dark sense of humor around a blazingly fast wit and whale-sized hooks. From a pot-fueled declaration that Sara Lee is the most phenomenal woman since Eleanor Roosevelt to "you don't thank someone for hot orange juice!" being barked out in a fit of pre-wedding jitters, Company kept me laughing pretty steadily throughout.

Following the success and notoriety of his minimalist interpretation of Sweeney Todd, director John Doyle strips Company down to bare metal. The entire production takes place on a single sparsely dressed set abstract enough to pass for numerous different locations, and the cast doubles as the orchestra. That means everyone on stage is singing, acting, and playing an instrument...sometimes juggling all three at once. That demands an enormous amount of talent, and this revival of Company does indeed benefit from an outstanding cast that's more than up to the challenge. Raúl Esparza in particular impresses in the lead role, masking Bobby's quiet sense of unhappiness with smirking charm and a devastatingly sharp wit.

I'm not equipped to judge how well this reinterpretation of Company stacks up against more lavish Broadway productions of the Sondheim musical, but at least from the perspective of this outsider peeking in, I loved it. Brilliantly funny, insightful, and resonant, Company proved to be a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray, and this disc very much comes recommended.

Video: Originally recorded as part of PBS' Great Performances series, this production of Company is presented in high definition at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. There is one misprint on the flipside of the case -- the AVC-encoded video is interlaced rather than presented at full 1080p -- but this Blu-ray disc looks outstanding regardless. The image is considerably sharper and better defined than anything I've caught on my local PBS affiliate, boasting rock-solid
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contrast, punchy blacks, and nicely saturated colors. The quality can vary a bit from shot to shot; there's one camera behind the stage that's infrequently used but looks horrifically soft, and another camera or two have a slightly edgier look than the rest. Those are extremely minor gripes, though, and a couple of negligible concerns aside, this production of Company looks terrific on Blu-ray.

Some blocking is visible in the background of the screenshots scattered throughout this review, but this wasn't distracting at a normal viewing distance on my display.

Audio: Company does include a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but at least to my ears, it's indistinguishable from the 640Kbps Dolby Digital track elsewhere on the disc. The audio is a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately. The sound design does do a wonderful job spreading the chorus of vocals, the laughter and applause of the audience, and the instrumentation of the performers across all of the speakers. While the mix is naturally more subdued outside of the musical numbers, that nimble sound design coupled with the light reverb of the line deliveries in the surround channels make for a nicely enveloping experience. However, there's virtually no low-end at all. Maybe there was some fear that any sort of bass might overpower the vocals and the rest of the instrumentation, but the near-total lack of any low frequencies leaves the mix feeling somewhat thin and insubstantial. Some sporadic hiss creeps in as well, and light crackling was briefly audible halfway through the performance. The mediocre score in the sidebar isn't meant to suggest that this production of Company sounds poor, but this is a subpar effort for the format.

Also offered alongside the two 5.1 mixes is a stereo LPCM track. The disc is not subtitled.

Extras: This Blu-ray disc includes three sets of interviews, all of which are presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.

The lengthiest and most compelling of the lot is "An Audience with Stephen Sondheim" (39 min.), an Australian television special in which the composer and lyricist behind Company is interviewed by Jonathan Biggins. Company itself is touched on only briefly as the quick-witted and personable
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Sondheim discusses the entirety of his sprawling career. Among the many, many highlights are a brutally honest afternoon with the legendary Oscar Hammerstein as a fledgling teenaged playwright, reflecting on the lyrics of West Side Story a half-century later, how his brief stint writing for television influenced his later work, introducing America to cryptic crosswords, the input he had into Tim Burton's then-just-completed adaptation of Sweeney Todd, his disinterest in 'classical' music, and even being immortalized on The Simpsons. Nearly all of Sondheim's major works are covered to some degree, and even for someone like myself with little knowledge of musical theatre, this is a tremendously entertaining interview.

Of the three interviews on this disc, the one most intensely focused on Company itself is a fifteen minute discussion with star Raúl Esparza. The actor speaks at length about the character of Bobby and the restraint and technique demanded to bring him to life on the stage. Esparza also speaks about learning to play piano for the part and his detailed thoughts on Sondheim's approach to music.

Finally, John Doyle discusses for nine minutes his background as a director, the appeal and challenges of his stripped-down reinterpretations of Sondheim's work, and some of his thoughts about Company in particular.

Conclusion: I really enjoyed my introduction to Company, an infectious, incisive, and relentlessly witty reinterpretation of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Although the lossless audio on this Blu-ray disc isn't as powerful as it ought to be, the disc does boast a sparkling high definition presentation and a set of insightful, comprehensive interviews. Recommended.

Related Reviews: Although my familiarity with musical theatre in general and Sondheim's Company in particular is embarrassingly limited, Daniel Hirshleifer has written a much more informed review for anyone interested in another perspective.
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