New 'Company' toots its horn

Times Staff Writer

An enterprising sociologist with a theatrical bent might want to consider studying the Stephen Sondheim effect on marriage. Not to tilt the research in advance, but a certain Broadway musical from 1970 may have single-handedly upped the divorce rate in America.

Robert the commitment-phobe at the jaundiced heart of Sondheim and George Furth's Tony-winning "Company" is once again celebrating his 35th birthday and reviewing the miracles and miseries of monogamy.

Raul Esparza's charismatic portrayal of Bobby makes it easy to understand why everyone is obsessed with getting him hitched -- he's too dangerously tempting a proposition as a single man. Better to have him married, mortgaged and fat. That way the worst he can do is have an extramarital affair, which, in the world of "Company," is a sin hardly worth confessing.

The revival, which opened Wednesday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, marks the latest Sondheim redesign by John Doyle, the hot British director who last year brought to Broadway a stripped-down "Sweeney Todd" in which the cast also served as the band. If the notion of Patti LuPone toting a tuba seemed outlandish, the concept proved a marvel in resurrecting the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street and his macabre mistress purveying those suspicious meat pies.

One would expect this kind of Doyle double-tasking to work even better for "Company," a book musical that plays more like a revue. Essentially a bunch of dazzling numbers thematically linked, the show parades onto the stage a series of married couples who could use something to do while dialing in their despair. So pass out the trumpets and orchestra bells, and let's watch them really make some baleful music together.

Surprisingly, the effect encumbers more than enhances Sondheim's vision. The production has its share of exhilarating movements and is definitely a welcome Broadway sight, but the staging doesn't hang together as a character study.

This may reflect an inherent flaw in the material -- just what the heck is Bobby's problem with women, anyway? -- but layering an additional level of abstraction on an already abstract work makes the protagonist's inner psychodrama seem that much more elusive. Too often a woodwind comes between us and an actor's truth and there's a flute where a revelatory expression should be.

Yes, there are times the band shtick cleverly highlights the subtext, as when Bobby's girlfriends diagnose his shortcomings in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," with saxophone accents that sonorously indict their man as a repeat offender.

There's also one vertiginous moment of theatrical gaiety in Heather Laws' bridal basket-case rendition of "Getting Married Today" -- the largest organ in the world couldn't stand in this performer's panic-stricken way.

And what a cornucopia of memorable songs, a bounty that from this perspective in time seems almost mythological. Perhaps the most famous, "The Ladies Who Lunch," is powerfully growled by Barbara Walsh, who has a terrific voice, even if she can't quite banish the memory of Elaine Stritch, who made the Manhattan matriarch's alcoholic ditty her craggy signature.

But somehow the various elements don't coalesce the way they did in Doyle's "Sweeney Todd." Granted, "Company" doesn't make it easy, with its segmented book and mysterious protagonist. But the actors aren't given many opportunities to fill in what's missing.

Esparza, who scored a Tony nomination as the cross-dressing narrator of "Taboo," seemingly has it all: looks, a rich tenor and an ambiguous sexuality that lends everyone a little hope. What he needs, however, is a production that would allow him to pierce Bobby's aloofness, so that we could see what's underneath the compulsive push and pull of his amorous life.

In the "Barcelona" number, we're fleetingly offered such a glimpse. The scene involves Bobby and April (a fine Elizabeth Stanley), the airline stewardess he's just spent the night with. She wakes early to catch a flight to Spain while he, yawningly, tries to keep her from leaving. Esparza reveals what's behind the manipulative gesture -- the emotional stirrings provoked by loss, only to be quelled once it becomes apparent what it would mean if she stayed.

Otherwise, Bobby's growing loneliness accrues somewhat too generically. There's not enough internal subtlety in Esparza's performance to justify his ambivalent epiphany in "Being Alive," the big finale in which he comes to understand that having someone to hold him "too close" and hurt him "too deep" isn't so much a ludicrous luxury as a basic human need.

It's as if Doyle has blindly followed the advice in Sondheim's haunting ode to committed love, "Sorry-Grateful," and not bothered "to look for answers where none occur." Yet the composer earns his existential sentiment, whereas the direction is too busy foisting instruments on the actors to dramatically tune into the silent concert of longing.


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