Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Band! Ten-Hut! Mark Time Mark!

"Company" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, February 7, 2007

John Doyle strikes again with a stripped down, streamlined staging of Sondheim's "Company." In the same vein as last year's "Sweeney Todd," Doyle has tossed the pit orchestra onto the stage as the responsibility of the actors. Where it worked well with the concept of asylum inmates putting on a show, here it looks like the child of musical theatre and marching band. For those of you who thought "Blast" from several years ago, an indoor staging of drum and bugle corps-style performance event was that bizarro-child - you were wrong.

Unfortunately, this is not a love-child. Rather it's turned out to be the bastard child. My real fear is that Mr. Doyle has set a new formula by which producers will look to control the costs associated with producing musical theatre. What's next, Annie accompanying herself on the glockenspiel?

Aside from the close-order-drill staging, there are some very nice performances on view.

Raul Esparza gives us a very detached and emotionally-unavailable Bobby who's really anxious to change his life. He orbits the lives of his friends and vice-versa, making an occasional foray into their relationships as the naturally stumble along. The measure of time is contrived around Bobby's birthday, turning 35 as the show begins. We follow Bobby through the next year during a series of vignettes as he spends time with each of the five couples that make up his social world:
  • Sarah and Harry: uber-competitive, they seem to enjoy the fights and nitpicking more than the make-up sex.
  • Joanne and Larry: a little older; she, married for the #th time, a bit jaded and not quite ready to believe she's found the one who really loves her for who she is.
  • Susan and Peter: a bit too sweet and polished on the surface, so after their divorce they continue to stay together for the kids.
  • Jenny and David: traveling through life on pure momentum, hiding things that the other already knows anyway.
  • Amy and Paul: not yet married; she, frenetic and manic - he, calming and stalwart.
The score survives the Doyle treatment quite nicely, I must say. Not sure how to divide that credit between Mr. Sondheim and Mary-Mitchell Campbell who supervised the music and orchestrated this production.

A couple of standouts:
  • Barbara Walsh as Joanne - it's tough to rise out of the ashes of Elaine Strich. Congratulations to her for making this role her own.
  • Heather Laws as Amy - I think every good patter song deserves an encore. Gilbert and Sullivan knew this. Why doesn't everyone else?
  • Kelly Jeane Grant as Kathy - brings a full fledged performance to what otherwise would be a mere 2-dimensional featured role.
  • Elizabeth Stanley as April - a thinking man's blond bimbo.
David Gallo's set, open and thoughtful, supports Mr. Doyle's vision for this production most effectively. A central column evokes a Soho loft, as well as the "I" of Bobby's life as a single man. The diamond-shaped wooden floor on which it rests is surrounded by a track of darker wood which serves as a runway for the five couples to orbit Bobby. The rest of the set fades away in glossy black with acrylic tiered boxes/platforms. The acrylic boxes are an especially effective metaphor to me, portraying the artificial pedestals on which Bobby views his friends, as well as the three women (Marta, April and Kathy) we meet in his life. It is Thomas C. Hase's lighting that is the key to the set's ultimate success. Ann Hould-Ward's mostly-black costuming flatters each cast member without distraction, but doesn't add much either. I did have a bit of trouble with Amy in a black wedding dress and veil - seemed a bit strong even for her in spite of her fear of the commitment she's about to make. I think with the occasional shades of grey and white that were already there, a white (or at least grey) veil might have softened the impact.

Mr. Doyle is a talented man with a definite vision. I sure would like to see him interpret something like "A Little Night Music" on a full budget, leaving the orchestra in the pit.

(Star-watch: Susan Stroman in the house. With her hair down, I almost didn't recognize her - no ponytail through a black baseball cap.)

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