Star-Studded Cast Makes For Good ‘Company’

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CHICAGO – Though I’ve often entertained the notion of attending an opera or sporting event at a local theater, I just can’t seem to bring myself to pay the admission. No filmed footage, however intimate and detailed, can truly capture the visceral energy of a live performance. No matter how close a camera can zoom in on the action, it still provides the worst seat in the house.

That being said, my opinion may have been swayed by the New York Philharmonic’s superb revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Company.” The concert production is not without its flaws, but there are more than enough highlights on hand to compensate. While some onstage portrayals don’t hold up on film due to their larger-than-life nuances, this show is chockfull of veteran TV actors whose work delivers the goods both in close-up and extreme long shot.

With marquee names guaranteed to attract their respective fan bases, perhaps “Company” may succeed in its experimental bid to help make future Broadway shows more readily accessible to the mainstream. What’s curious is the choice of production. In 1970, Sondheim and book scribe George Furth originally conceived the play as a direct reflection of the upper middle-class audiences that often turn out for a high-priced evening of high-class theatre. Sondheim wanted to force viewers to confront the problems they were intending to escape, and still deliver two-and-a-half hours of pure entertainment. The resulting show may not have had as memorable a score as Sondheim’s superior classics, but it does contain his signature mixture of witty lyrics, barbed sarcasm, startling poignance and a healthy dose of ambiguity. The question is whether mainstream audiences will care about the existential hemming and hawing of the elite. I don’t see why not. Every convoluted relationship in “Company” is instantly relatable. I think the biggest hurdle facing this limited engagement run is the distance a lens makes between performers and audience members. A month-old recording simply can’t produce the same adrenaline rush as a live show, and I’ll admit that it took me a good half-hour to settle into the rhythms of this production, with its distracting array of celebrities accompanied by smiling members of the 35-piece orchestra residing onstage. But once I did, I was hooked.

Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris star in Lonny Price’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris star in Lonny Price’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Photo credit: Chris Lee

All action centers on the surprise birthday party of Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris), a 35-year-old bachelor in the Big Apple with no plans to marry after a series of recent flings. At the party, we meet five couples who share only two things in common: their professed friendship with Bobby and their supposed love for one another. For much of the first act, the protagonist does little more than look bemused and contemplative as he observes the behavior of the various couples, while relating them back to his own ever-evolving beliefs about relationships. Some of the dialogue is maddeningly cryptic, as characters claim that marriage changes both everything and nothing, while Bobby surmises that he’d like to be ‘married…a little.’ Yet it’s precisely that level of indecision that makes these characters something more than quirky tropes.

Some of the most compelling scenes chronicle the failed relationships from Bobby’s past, and the women who continue to linger in his mind. They initially materialize together before launching into “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a catchy number that provides the play with its first bona-fide showstopper. Christina Hendricks, the voluptuous star of “Mad Men,” is especially memorable as a bubble-headed flight attendant whose steamy night with Bobby is haunted by the disapproving voices of his friends. Anika Noni Rose, my personal favorite “Dreamgirl,” also delivers an exuberant thunderbolt of energy during her few scenes as an aspiring sophisticate madly in love with urban bustle. Harris merely looks slack-jawed during these scenes, as his co-stars are left to devour every last ounce of scenery.

Patti LuPone brings down the house in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Patti LuPone brings down the house in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Photo credit: Chris Lee

Anyone who’s seen Harris in viral hits such as “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog,” let alone last weekend’s Tony Awards, is well aware of the man’s enormously appealing charisma, confidence and seemingly bottomless talent. He is perfectly capable of carrying a Broadway show on his shoulders, and in the second act of 
“Company,” he’s finally able to prove that fact in spades. He brings the show to a smashing close with his exhilarating rendition of “Being Alive,” though it leaves one hoping to see Harris in a role more worthy of his talents. As for the ensemble, there are several members who score but a few seem oddly miscast. As genial alcoholic Harry, comedy icon Stephen Colbert engages in some amusing slapstick karate with scene partner Martha Plimpton, but he often appears ill-at-ease during the musical numbers. It looks as if Colbert is straining to deliver the lyrics at the correct pitch and rhythm. He sadly doesn’t sport the same confidence he had in his wonderful Colbert Christmas special. “Two and a Half Men” star Jon Cryer gets acted off the stage by Jennifer Lauren Thompson, a hoot as his stoned but square wife. Yet the play’s comedic highpoint comes courtesy of Chicago’s own Katie Finneran, who effortlessly exudes comic genius as a conflicted bride-to-be spiraling into a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the only cast member who earns an even bigger hand is Broadway legend Patti LuPone, whose big number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” is in the form of a scalding drunken rant, and it’s nearly worth the price of admission.

The best scenes in “Company” will lead most audiences to forget they’re watching a taped recording, and might even inspire some spontaneous outbursts of applause. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s certainly a great first shot at bringing the thrills of Broadway to a theater near you. God only knows if and when we’ll see limited theatrical engagements for “The Book of Mormon.” Now that would be something worth rushing to see.

‘Company’ stars Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Lauren Thompson, Jim Walton, Chryssie Whitehead and Patti LuPone. It was written by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim and directed by Lonny Price. It opened June 15 in select theaters. It is not rated. For tickets and showtimes, visit www.companyonscreen.com.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

GQB's picture

I hope so...

I hope that this is a trend in bringing Broadway to the rest of the country.
Unfortunately the argument can be made that doing this more often would kill touring companies. But I think the benefit of expanding the audience would more than outweigh that and maybe even increase live attendance.

It kills me that EVERY Broadway production doesn’t do at least one quality filming for posterity.
I would kill to see the most recent revival of Sweeney Todd directed by John Doyle. Seems like it was lost to the ether.

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