You sense how much Company overturned musical theater tradition as soon as you see designer Derek McLane's stunning set for the Kennedy Center's production.
The set is a cityscape turned on its side. The tops of skyscrapers jut straight out at the audience, and the bases recede into the distance, transforming the playing area into a deep, steel-and-glass tunnel.
It's not a warm and welcoming place, and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's brilliantly brittle 1970 show is anything but a heartwarming traditional musical. Of all Sondheim's groundbreaking shows, Company is the one that stirred things up the most, and director Sean Mathias' keenly perceived production is a striking reminder of just how innovative this show was - and continues to be.
Company is a musical that dared to do away with conventional plot - and yet it's far more than a revue. It does away with the traditional chorus. It turns its protagonist into an observer, instead of a doer. And it uses many of its songs to comment on what characters are feeling - instead of to express those feelings outright.
How apropos that a show that questions one of society's sacred traditions - marriage - breaks the Broadway musical's traditions as well. There are many deliberately unsettling things about Company (in Sondheim's smart, edgy score as well as Furth's atypical book), but the way the musical's form mirrors its content is a source of enormous satisfaction. And Mathias' staging reinforces that satisfaction with a highly stylized take on this highly stylized musical.
Company's protagonist is a bachelor named Bobby who, on the occasion of his 35th birthday, begins seriously questioning his unmarried state. The musical provides him with five case studies - the marriages of his 10 closest friends. John Barrowman - an actor whose looks and winning charm suggest a cross between Tom Cruise and Hugh Grant - makes it easy to see why Bobby attracts so many friends.
But while Bobby would never tell them how to live their lives, they're all determined to get him to the altar so he can be as "happily" married as they are. The examples of their wobbly marriages, and of Bobby's relationships with three different women are presented as little vignettes - some sung, some spoken and a good many commented on by cast members who double as a kind of Greek chorus.
The variety keeps the musical engrossing in the absence of a standard plot. At their best, director Mathias and choreographer Jodi Moccia spice up this variety with their own stylistic strokes. Consider, for example, the hilarious wedding jitters expressed by Alice Ripley's Amy in "Getting Married Today."
Amy is dressed in full bridal regalia, but Mathias places her behind a kitchen counter, augmenting her wedding mini-dress and veil with yellow rubber gloves. As Emily Skinner repeatedly and beautifully intones, "Bless this day," Ripley's frantic Amy becomes increasingly incensed. Taking a break from her speed-sung list of reasons not to get married, Ripley bites down on one of the yellow gloves and rips the thing off with her teeth.
It's totally in keeping with Bobby's own mixed feelings about marriage that, having witnessed Amy's neurotic display, he then proposes to her - the only woman on stage as frightened of marriage as he is.
For the most part, Bobby seems quite content being the odd man out - a sentiment cleverly celebrated in the second-act opening number, "Side by Side by Side" which Mathias and Moccia present as a parade in Bobby's honor, complete with a large red banner bearing his name and a wheeled staircase that serves as a float on which he's perched, waving to his adoring fans. At the end of the number, however, his friends exit two by two, leaving him abandoned and alone.
Not all of the numbers hit home this effectively. The songs sung by two of Bobby's girlfriends both misfire. Marcy Harriell belts out "Another Hundred People," an anthem to the loneliness of the crowded city, with plenty of oomph, but no perceptible desperation. And Kim Director's delivery of the stewardess' lament, "Barcelona," is bland and affectless, even for a character who's supposed to be a bit dull.
In contrast, listen to the way Lynn Redgrave, playing a rich, often-married alcoholic, sells the bitter tirade/toast, "The Ladies Who Lunch." This song has become a signature piece for Elaine Stritch, who created the role. But if Stritch owns the song, Redgrave stakes a darned good claim with her throaty, acerbic, tell-it-like-it-is delivery.
In the end, however, it is Barrowman who takes command of the stage, pouring a gamut of emotions, from dejection to hope, into the show's final song, "Being Alive." This song wasn't Sondheim's first choice for an ending. It replaced a number the musical's original director, Harold Prince, has described as the "most unhappy song ever written."
"Being Alive" may be a gentler ending, but as Barrowman sings it, it's not a complete change of heart, not a promise that he'll live happily-ever-after, just that he'll be a little more open - and maybe, just maybe, he'll avoid some of his friends' mistakes.
Though some of the supporting performances are uneven, this second production in the Kennedy Center's summer-long Sondheim Celebration takes greater interpretive risks than the series opener, Sweeney Todd.
And what a thrill to see these two musicals "side by side." Widely divergent in almost every respect, the shows have been given totally disparate productions. Viewed together, they offer a glowing tribute to a man whose contributions to the American musical are as varied as they are daring.