Stephen Sondheim is Broadway's living legend. A master of tonal composition, he's the genius behind such classics as A Little Night Music and Sundays In The Park With George. And recently he's seen tremendous success with two re-imaginings of his 1979 masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The first was the stunning cinematic translation by director Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp as the title barber and Helena Bonham Carter as his cohort in crime, Mrs. Lovett. The second was a stage revival directed by John Doyle, who stylized the show almost beyond recognition. He used a single stage and two coffin-shaped objects to suggest the different locations in the show. And, most dramatically, Doyle had the actors play all the musical instruments. The revival was an instant hit, playing to sold out audiences in New York and Los Angeles. Doyle attempted to capture lightning in a bottle twice by offering a similar staging of an earlier Sondheim work, Company.
Company is a rumination on marriage and love in an increasingly metropolitan and cynical world. It centers around main character Bobby, a perpetual bachelor, and his 35th birthday. He's surrounded by married friends, all of whom are determined that this year they will convince him to join their ranks. Through a series of vignettes, Bobby encounters each couple and learns a little more about their lives together. At the same time, he tries to decide whether or not marriage is for him, and if so, who he should share his life with.
Company was a bit of an anomaly when it premiered in the early 1970's. Deliberately ambiguous and full of dark, tough humor, the show offers neither easy answers nor particularly enjoyable characters. Bobby is the best of the lot, and he's generally indecisive and detached. He wants to enjoy the benefits of marriage without the drawbacks. The rest of the characters seem flat out miserable in their relationships. The men often declare outright envy for Bobby's bachelor lifestyle, while the women practically demand that he get married, probably so they no longer have to feel drawn to the lure of his single status. Despite the overall downbeat nature of the show, it is often very funny, with memorable dialogue and even better music.
However much success John Doyle may have found with his bold new take on Sweeney Todd, he can't replicate it with this flat retelling of Company. Sweeney is a very elastic story, and the stylization of Doyle's staging recalled the show's Grand Guignol roots. While it didn't have the same effect of a fully staffed staging, it certainly provided an interesting alternative take. Company, on the other hand, is best told on a larger scale, with a more realistic setting. Doyle has stripped Company down even further than Todd, placing the actors on a square under lit stage with only a Roman column and a grand piano to suggest apartment furnishings. The column is distracting and the piano is almost never used. The actors not currently in the scene sit off the side of the stage, playing their respective instruments. It's not flattering and detracts from the core of the show.
Musically, the concept also falls flat on its face. Company, as the title suggests, is something best performed by a full company of players. The radical re-orchestrations of the songs are inelegant and strip the music of a lot of its beauty and urgency. The singing isn't so bad, with the exception of Joanne Walsh, who is so shrill and noxious that I think I'd rather get kicked in the balls than hear her voice again. It doesn't help that in the spoken dialogue scenes she simply does Elaine Stritch instead of coming up with her own take on the character of Joanne.
The saving grace of the production are the spoken word scenes, which generally retain all of George Firth's dark comedy. In particular, Raul Esparza is great as Bobby, coming off as effortlessly charming while also selling the internal conflicts of the character. And his voice is excellent. If only he had been allowed to play the part with a full orchestra and some real staging, we could have had a true revival of this Broadway classic.
The Blu-ray Disc: