A Door Opened...
COMPANY IN LONDON
by David K. Newell
Well, where to begin to tell you how wonderful I think this production is?
Probably by realizing that I was very ready to see a good production of Company, remembering how awful I thought the Roundabout production (with a few minor exceptions) was.
In NY I walked into the theatre, took one look at the set and went "uh-oh". At the Albery Theatre I walked in, saw the brick and steel loft set with Bobby's telephone/answering machine hanging on the wall, the message button flashing steadily, and knew all was going to be well. But little did I imagine HOW well.
The bulk of credit obviously goes to the director, Sam Mendes, who has really looked at the show and figured out what it's about instead of seeing it as a bunch of great songs linked together by skits. It was a relief to see him and his designers make it 100% clear that this was all happening inside Bobby's head, and then really use that idea throughout the show.
In the program Mendes talks about deliberately avoiding the revue-like format. Therefore the real focus of the songs becomes Bobby, not the audience. Some particularly effective moments in this vein were:
For the second verse of "The Little Things..." Bobby "broke" from the frozen pose with Sarah and Harry, turned and looked up at Joanne (in what seemed like shock/disbelief) on the upper level of the set. The rest of the song, with the whole cast, continued to be played strictly for him. And during several other numbers (like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"), Bobby was seated on a chair at the edge of the stage, with his back to the audience watching the performance. Very effective.
During "Poor Baby" all the women, wearing their various night clothes, gathered around Bobby and April in bed, with moody and dark side light, obviously conveying to him their personal fantasies of being in that bed.
This leads to the other great strength which was the highly individualized character work. Each person, and couple, had their own personality that was reflected in every aspect of their performance. In addition to the acting, vocal technique and choreography were carefully sculpted around these portrayals. Much more interesting (and correct) than the unified and generic choreography and sound of the New York production.
This worked extremely well in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" where the pop/angular choreography clearly displayed the anger of the song. But a nice touch was that April was always a half-beat behind or unsure in her moves -- exactly the way that character would behave in that situation. A very amusing touch.
It was also a relief to see "Another Hundred People" performed so well, and I feel I finally understand how this song can be played. From the Roundabout production, the big La Chanze debate centered on her portrayal of Marta's "loving" NY, and therefore singing all happy smiles and sunshine. In contrast Anna Francolini's Marta (who was costumed like a character from "Rent") also visibly loved New York. But she was rushing, appearing on different parts of the set at different times, trying to see and absorb all of NY at every moment --and it was making her nuts. This fits so well with the urgent tone of the song (the pulse of New York) and the way that NY energy takes over your life.
The other character on extreme edge was Amy. Now others may have had trouble with Sophie Thompson's portrayal, but I didn't. It is such a fearless piece of acting, treading a VERY thin line, that I found her exciting. I appreciated her ability to make more of "Getting Married Today" than just a stream of words. And her portrayal fits in with Bobby's dilemma since we are seeing her actually getting married and how that REALLY freaks her out. This was played almost verging on tragedy and brought an entirely different light on the scene from Veanne Cox's equally credible, yet more clownish, version of despair. This helped make "Marry Me a Little" a very fitting and moving end to the first act, seeing Bobby's reaction to Amy's situation.
Also worth mentioning is Sheila Gish's Joanne. Some, in listening to the recording have seen her as an Elaine Stritch clone. I'm not so sure. True, like Ms. Stritch, she has a gravel voice and perfect timing. But I feel what comes across on stage and CD is that this Joanne is in a lot of pain and is therefore always on the edge of being falling-down drunk. Her slurring of "r's" shows, for me, that she's just starting to lose control of her speech, but she still has some grasp. It struck me as a very sad portrayal. A woman with a husband who truly loves her, but she can't be happy, she must drink and make a scene. Her self-revelation (and self-loathing) in "The Ladies Who Lunch" made this all very clear. Ms. Gish managed to balance the bitter humor with the tradegy underneath -- much in the way Ms. Stritch is doing now in "A Delicate Balance". But I suspect that 25 years ago, Ms. Stritch wasn't able to juggle those contradictory levels of pain and bitchiness in quite the same way.
I was also struck by the levels of the relationships between Bobby and the couples. It became clear how they used and needed each other in often unhealthy ways. This was demonstrated in Sarah's sexual fantasies and blatant flirting, the men's wanting to live vicariously through Bobby's sexual escapades, and Joanne's need of an audience for her bitterness.
I found Adrian Lester's Bobby extremely compelling, and I still am not sure exactly what he was doing to make that so. I suspect that the production truly revolving around him and his thoughts helped this. But he also seemed to actively want and need the couples (for some "company", of course). But it was also clear that he was using the couples to dispel his own feelings of loneliness and isolation and was therefore clinging to them as desperately as they cling to him.
All this made the ending extremely powerful. During the scene with Joanne where she hits on him saying "I'll take care of you" he is compelled to say "Who will I take care of?". She tells him that by asking that question she sees "A door swing open that has been shut a long time". That made the transistion into "Being Alive" entirely believable and not, by any means, a cop-out. As can be heard on the recording, Bobby begins to literally crack (crying, very emotional) during the song's transistion to "Somebody crowd me with love", at the realization of just how lonely he is, how despeate for a real relationship. This was also shown in his vocal approach to the whole show. During the interval I heard some Americans say they weren't impressed with the voices, and it did seem that Lester was holding back. But "Being Alive" showed that was a deliberate choice since with that song Bobby, for the first time, sang loud and clear, with full voice, expressing his deepest inner yearings. I was just devastated by this, a truly stellar performance.
I had no trouble with some of the "controversial" aspects of this production. The "parallel lines" of cocaine made sense within the context of the number and the way it was staged -- all garish hot lights and breathtakingly charged choreography. The use of the couples as one large group in this number (and at other moments) made me think of "The Blob", not an inappropriate association. It was great to see the choreography of "What Would We Do..." be able to build incredible energy with a rather limited range of movement. And with no constant energy-dropping exits and entrances for a parade of unnecessary props like in New York.
The new "gay" scene was also interesting, with Peter and Bobby confessing past homosexual experiences, and Peter implying that he would like to have another with Bobby. Bobby's reaction of "I think we should go inside" (where Susan and Marta are) really brought out, for me, how Bobby is getting fed up with the way the couples use him. It was nice to have the gay angle addressed (in addition to retaining the "if a person was a fag" line in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy") and acknowledge that sexuality is not always cut and dry. As pointed out in the program, the "somebody" mentioned in "Being Alive" has no gender -- it's just somebody.
Extra special mention must also be made of Jonathan Tunick's new orchestrations. ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIC!! Getting rid of the 70's synthy sound and making wonderful use of other instruments like sax and oboe to give a completely fresh, jazzy feel. It all sounded like it was written yesterday. No "timeless" b-s with mixed period sounds (or costumes for that matter, bravo again Mr. Mendes and designer Mark Thompson). I very clean, lean sound that suites the show perfectly. Another example of the extremely specific reaching the universal.
I was also struck by the way the whole show hinges on Bobby making an extremely small shift in perspective that has enormous impact. It really is just that little "door" opening, allowing the *possibility* of a real relationship in the future. This was brought out by the ending of each act. At the end of the first act Bobby leaned over the table to blow out the candles, but then didn't and walked off stage. At the end of the second act, Bobby sat down, thought a moment, took a breath and blew the candles out very slowly, almost one-by-one. When the candles were out the stage was dark. No button, no punch, just a slow deliberate fade into the future. The only real change is that Bobby now knows what to wish for. The lack of a "Company" reprise during the bows helped retain the impact of that final moment.
It is a tragedy that this production is closing at the end of June. At least it was taped for the BBC and may show up on our shores someday. There have been rumors that Bill Kenwright will bring this production to New York. I hope he does, it's the production Broadway deserves.
With Company I always think about Sondhiem's "the audience should laugh their heads off for two hours and not be able to sleep that night" quote. Well, I must say I couldn't get to sleep the night I saw the show. Not because it scared me, but due to the sheer brilliance and dazzle of a great evening in the theatre.
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