Review: In a Gender-Flipped Revival, ‘Company’ Loves Misery

If ever there was a good time for you to dislike the “Company,” isn’t it?

No, the November 26 death of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim makes this more properly a time for grief and gratitude. After all, he was the man who wrote those sentiments in a beautiful “Company” song – “Sorry-Grateful” – and in doing so, he introduced ambivalence on an almost cellular level into American musical theater.

But let’s face it, the renaissance that opened Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater is not the “Company” that Sondheim and book writer George Furth (along with director Hal Prince) sparked on Broadway in 1970. Sure, the score is still great, and there are some perfectly recorded performances in supporting roles, especially that of Patti LuPone as Joanne pickled and undermined.

Yet as directed by Marianne Elliott, in a gender-reversed version instigated by Sondheim himself, what was once the story of a man who is terrified of intimacy turns into something much less interesting: the story of a woman who is justifiably tired of her friends. .

That woman, now Bobbie instead of Bobby, and played by the attractive Katrina Lenk, no longer hears the busy signal of lost emotional connections that throbbed through the songs in their original incarnation. This time, what accompanies her as she studies five couples and samples three lovers is the ticking of a biological clock.

Rephrased that way, and with piles of oversized symbolic baggage piled on top, the story comes to seem exaggerated and incoherent. Gone is the affirmative lesson Bobbie learns from suffocating couples attending her 35th birthday party, a milestone she would rather ignore. Instead, as if to show that “Company” loves misery, this production takes her off the pedestal of her estrangement and drags her into the mud of a long and dark night of the soul. At one point, he vomits into a bucket.

Not that consistency has never been the strong point of the material. From the start, critics complained about a main character who seemed dangerously recessive, noting other people’s weaknesses in loose comic sketches that barely added up. No wonder: they began life as separate one-act plays.

In one such sketch, low-level friction between husband and wife breaks out in a jiu-jitsu match; in another, the seemingly perfect glow of marital bliss turns out to be the glow of impending divorce. A third couple learn the meaning of devotion while smoking marijuana; a fourth couple, now configured as two gay men, experience hiccups on the way down the aisle.

Still, as Sondheim’s diamond songs put it together, “Company” offered an innovative way of looking at their theme, less through a microscope than through a kaleidoscope. Sarcasm turning to intuition was the hallmark of the style, borrowing unrepresentative techniques from midcentury drama and combining it with a psychological wit rarely seen in American musicals. The result was a new narrative method in which thematic coherence exceeded the conventional plot and almost obliterated it.

While fascinating in theory, and worth considering as a way to reorient the outdated sexual politics of the original, Elliott’s idea that the material could be regenerated for a new era completely breaks that coherence. Other than the new Sondheim custom lettering, just a few of the modifications made to fit the thesis scan. One involves the gay couple, Jamie (formerly Amy) and Paul. For them, getting married is truly the scary thing that is described in the spectacular and twisted “Getting Married Today.” Explaining his decision to cancel the ceremony, Jamie (Matt Doyle) says, in a line that has been added: “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”

That moment rings true. But when Bobbie takes advantage of Jamie’s nervousness to suggest that he marry her instead of Paul, she doesn’t seem needy or wolfish like Bobby did when he proposed to Amy; it seems silly and disrespectful. That Lenk does not understand the meaning of the moment is not his fault. There are no lines or logic that will allow you to do so.

Even more puzzling is the scene where, as originally written, Joanne, tired of Bobby’s passivity, and perhaps her own, suggests that they are having an affair. Aside from turning Joanne into a lesbian, which could have been more interesting, Elliott has no choice but to turn her into a pimp, prompting Bobbie to “do it” with her husband, Larry. Perhaps if Larry weren’t a tertiary character, barely developed in Furth’s script, this might not seem like a hail pass as a director.

However, it’s surprising what a little LuPone can do to distract you from such things. Whether swinging her legs like a naughty girl or squatting on a toilet, yes, Elliott’s staging goes there, she brings her precision comedy and riveting charisma to every moment she’s on stage. His two great songs, “The little things they do together” and “The ladies who have lunch”, both practically alone, are extraordinarily tense and specific.

Pity that Lenk, so seductive in “The visit of the band” and “Indecente”, is not so lucky, both misinterpreted and mishandled. Bobby’s transformation into Bobbie has been achieved at the cost of some ribs, turning the character into a rag doll. Unable to meet the dramatic and vocal demands of the role, Lenk seems simply beaten by it. To be fair, Elliott’s staging, full of athletic work and scale contortions from “Alice in Wonderland” on the almost too fascinating set of Bunny Christie, is quite an exercise. Perhaps this is why Christie, who also designed the costumes, has curiously given Lenk plain white sneakers to wear with his elegant scarlet suit.

But by trying to disguise the show’s magazine-like structure by centering the action in Bobbie’s mind, Elliott paradoxically pushes her back even further than usual. (At one point, she brings in a battalion of Bobbies, as if to make up.) In response, you are extraordinarily grateful for supporting characters who have clear things to do and do them intelligently, such as Jennifer Simard as the jiu-jitsu wife and Claybourne. Elderly man as himbo flight attendant.

However, in the end the program runs out of distractions.

Sondheim was collaborative to the extreme; It is no contradiction that he was ardently annoyed by the criticism of Furth’s work on “Company,” and yet (after initial skepticism) he enthusiastically supported Elliott’s renovations. “What keeps the theater alive is the ability to always do it differently,” he told The Times shortly before his death. It was not a mere bromide; Sondheim allowed a masterpiece like “Sweeney Todd” to be cut into tapes for the Tim Burton film and saw the cult failure “Merrily We Roll Along” through more surgeries than Frankenstein’s monster.

In that sense, this “Company” is perfectly aligned with its intentions: it is new. And truth be told, I have never been less fascinated, although usually in the way that Bobby is, observing messy marriages. The opportunity to hear the great score live with a 14-piece orchestra should not be taken lightly either; Is there a more exciting opening number than the title track?

So I guess I’m sorry, I’m grateful. I’m sorry I don’t like this version of “Company” more, and I thank Sondheim for providing the opportunity to find out.

At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Manhattan; Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes.

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