Theater review: 'Company'

Fri Apr 8, 2011 4:40pm EDT
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By David Rooney

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - "Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company." So goes the title song from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's innovative 1970 musical about marriage, commitment and New York neuroticism. But "Company" has perhaps never welcomed such a starry guest list as the one performing with the New York Philharmonic.

The lineup plucks from TV (Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer), theater (Patti LuPone, Aaron Lazar, Katie Finneran, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jill Paice, Jim Walton, Chryssie Whitehead) and a talent pool that comfortably straddles screen and stage (Neil Patrick Harris, Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Anika Noni Rose). Musically speaking, the semi-staged concert was a mixed bag on opening night. But that eclectic cast in itself makes the four-performance run a major New York event, greeted with a hearty standing ovation.

The Philharmonic's history with Sondheim includes a memorable 1985 "Follies" concert, considered by many to be that show's pre-eminent recording; and last year's "Sondheim: The Birthday Concert," televised by PBS. Company may fall short of those predecessors, but it provides some rare pleasures. Unconfirmed plans are brewing to film the show in performance for theatrical screenings in June.

Harris is ideally cast as commitment-phobic protagonist Bobby, who marks his 35th birthday by assessing the pros and cons of his mostly married friends' relationships while deciding if it's time to take the plunge himself. More observer than participant, Bobby has been described by Sondheim as the camera. Harris is no novice to the composer's notoriously tricky work, having performed in "Sweeney Todd" with the Philharmonic in 2000 and on Broadway in "Assassins" in 2004.

While he seems at times to be curbing his natural urge to go for laughs in this introspective role, Harris makes Bobby a believable anchor for the show. He's the single friend adored and fretted over by every couple, doted on with a mix of maternal and sexual feelings by the women and quietly desired by one of the men (Bierko in a funny vignette).

In his key songs, "Someone is Waiting," "Marry Me a Little" and especially the revelatory "Being Alive," Harris faces stiff competition. Memories of Raul Esparza's emotionally exposed renditions in the 2006 Broadway revival are still fresh. But despite a somewhat reedy voice, Harris puts across the songs with disarming sincerity and a stirring sense of self-examination. With more performance/rehearsal time under his belt, he could be a great Bobby.

Being under-rehearsed was a key obstacle here; reports indicated that the entire cast was only in the same room together for the first time the day they debuted. Sondheim's songs are among the most lyrically, melodically and textually challenging work in American musical theater, and such complexity is best not approached unprepared. Even some of the more vocally accomplished performers floundered a little.

Rose (a Tony winner for "Caroline, or Change," currently in a recurring arc on "The Good Wife") has a luscious voice. But she saps the anxiety from "Another Hundred People," a penetrating anthem to New Yorkers and their struggle to connect. Finneran (who nabbed a Tony last season for "Promises, Promises") should have hit a home run with the manic pre-nuptial meltdown "Getting Married Today." But her timing and clarity were off in a song that requires every word to be heard.   Continued...