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A filmed performance of the production by Sam Mendes for the Donmar
Warehouse, which gives Stephen Sondheim's work an intimacy it deserves.
Adrian Lester plays Bobby, the 35-year-old singleton who looks and learns
from his married friends.
Amongst the cast, the brilliant Clive Rowe (beautifully voiced on `Sorry-Grateful') and Sophie Thompson, excellent as crazy Amy. Perhaps the best of the lot (apart from Lester, whose oddly broken voice is perfect for `Marry Me a Little' and `Someone is Waiting') is Sheila Gish, as bitter, sarcastic Joanne belting out `The Ladies Who Lunch'.
Company was always one of the strongest Sondheim musicals and this is well-sung, well-acted, and even though a filmed stage play it looks excellent. Perhaps, despite the plaudits for his big movies, this kind of thing is truly where Mendes excels.
Company, for many people, is the show that introduced them to the art
of Stephen Sondheim. I saw the original London production, with Larry
Kert and Elaine Stritch, in 1972.
Not an easy piece to produce, it has a plot, but no story. Its origins in a series of unproduced one act play-lets by George Furth were developed by author and composer to provide an unexpected but brilliant commentary on relationships. It is very much a product of the time in which it was written.
One of the difficulties is that the central character Bobby the only one of his group of friends who isn't married or in a stable relationship is essentially passive, unsure and can easily be viewed as a sort of cypher, with the rest of the cast doing all the action. A successful production will overcome this. The Donmar Warehouse production does this triumphantly. As Sondheim himself remarked, this production clearly places the other characters where they belong - in Bobby's mind. Everything is in his head. His fear of commitment is gradually resolved, through a series of tableaux, culminating in his desire for the very thing that has previously frightened him.
Adrian Lester is excellent as Bobby. The fragility of his nature is shown well in his voice. I've always felt that Larry Kert, for example, was in many ways better than the originator on Broadway Dean Jones, who had the better voice. Similarly, the excellent John Barrowman, who was in the Washington 2002 revival and has a stunning voice, came across as a little too confident and positive a character.
Sheila Gish is Joanne. Perhaps even more abrasive than the original (Elaine Stritch) she holds the attention and the stage. 'The Ladies who lunch' is a number demanding a tour de force performance if it is to work, and here receives just that.
The other cast members give similarly sterling performances. The dialogue is sharp and clean and the words to the all-important musical numbers come across clearly. The diminutive stage size at the Donmar works in this piece's favour. The audience is close enough to the performers to feel a part of the action. The performance I attended showed even more clearly than this TV broadcast that everyone on stage was enjoying themselves, as was the audience. The cut number from the original production 'Marry Me a Little' is here restored to its place at the end of Act 1. All in all, a most satisfying performance of a Sondheim classic. If you can get a copy of this, grab it with both hands.
Though "Company" was something of a sensation in time, it is the least
enduring of all Sondheim's musicals. The intrinsic weakness of George
Furth's book is glaringly apparent. The characters are hopelessly
stereotypical leaving little credibility to the supposed relationships
between the couples and their single friend Bobby. Bobby in his single
predicament is dealt with superficially. We learn very little about
what has really brought him to this point in his life. The bulk of this
work tells us that marriage is tough. That's about the sum of it.
By contrast Sondheim's score is witty, intelligent and exciting, His later works would come to rely less on a collaborator's book and more on his own prowess for lyrics.
The challenge of making "Company" work is not an easy one. This Donmar Warehouse production fails in every conceivable way. Despite good intentions this space is simply not equipped for staging musicals. Scaling down "Into the Woods" to its own miniscule dimensions certainly added no magic. "Assassins" which was never intended for a large theatre worked well.
Though "Company" does not necessarily require a large space, the very nature of the Donmar, together with a very undersized anemic orchestra only serve to undermine the piece.
Sondheim musicals have often been performed by non singers, relying on personality, character and sheer star quality to make up for lesser vocal ability (Glynis Johns, Alexis Smith, Angela Lansbury to name a few). The bulk of the performers in this production seem to be non singers, and certainly without the aforementioned qualities to redeem their ineptitude. Those who actually can sing, simply have very unappealing voices. "Another Hundred People" a brilliant piece, was utterly butchered. (Listen to what Julia Mckenzie does with it on "Side By Side by Sondheim"). Basically there is not one decently sung number in the entire show and that spells death for any musical production.
Adrian Lester is excellent as Bobby. He's a fine, sensitive, good looking performer. His shaky vocals reflect the fragility of his character, but no matter which way you look at it, he is not a singer. "Being Alive" cannot be sung by someone who cannot really sing. Listen to Dean Jones (or better watch him in Pennebaker's documentary), it's powerful and heart rending.
The rest of the cast seem to be exactly what they are. British actors imitating New Yorkers. It's all embarrassingly artificial.
With no existing video of the original, "Company", for its problems deserves a far better representation than this production offers.
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