The gender-swapped ‘Company’ was good on Broadway but even better on tour

It speaks to the clarity and coherence of the gender-swapped “Company” that, upon witnessing the revival now on tour at the Kennedy Center, it almost becomes difficult to imagine Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s seminal musical comedy in its original 1970 iteration.

Marianne Elliott’s deftly realized production has been around the block, debuting on London’s West End in 2018, making its pandemic-delayed Broadway bow in 2021 and nabbing five Tonys. Thus, its central conceit — Bobby, a commitment-phobe bachelor on the verge of his 35th birthday, is now Bobbie, a commitment-phobe bachelorette — has had time to settle in, shed the baggage of comparisons to the past and take flight with a rich reputation all its own.

If only every canonical classic were this well suited to reinvention: By upending the creaky sexual politics of past productions, Elliott has turned “Company” into a contemporary tale of a woman struggling to square the societal pressure to settle down with the have-it-all impulses of modern femininity. In doing so, Elliott heightens Sondheim’s staggering score and lends renewed heft to some of the greatest show tunes ever written. (Elliott adjusted Furth’s book and collaborated with Sondheim on this revival before his 2021 death.)

Take “Being Alive,” Bobbie’s bring-down-the-house finale about giving in to love’s tempting tendrils, which Britney Coleman delivers with epiphanic urgency that hits differently as the character’s biological clock ticks. Or “Getting Married Today,” the virtuosic patter song — traditionally performed by a runaway bride — that now twists the tongue of the groom Jamie before his same-sex wedding. As the impeccable Matt Rodin pushes Jamie’s neurosis into hyperdrive, Elliott punctuates the showstopper with kinetic staging that finds a laugh lurking around every corner.

That number arrives in one of “Company’s” loosely connected vignettes, as Bobbie glimpses married life in all its multitudes through the eyes of her hitched friends. One couple, delightfully inhabited by Kathryn Allison and James Earl Jones II, presents marriage as gateway to middle-aged malaise as both spouses give up their vices, cycle through new hobbies and prod at each other’s insecurities. Javier Ignacio and Marina Kondo play a duo who seem to have it all figured out but are quietly crumbling. As an uptight husband and his considerably hipper wife, Jed Resnick and Emma Stratton shrewdly capture the futility of reliving a more carefree past.

Then there’s Joanne, the embittered Manhattan socialite immortalized by Elaine Stritch and portrayed in this revival’s West End and Broadway runs by Patti LuPone in an Olivier- and Tony-winning turn. Judy McLane proves to be a worthy successor to those theatrical titans, belting the acerbic toast “The Ladies Who Lunch” with all the steam of a locomotive about to go off the rails.

Although Bobbie (or Bobby) has always been something of a cipher, passively watching from the back seat as the show’s more colorful supporting characters take turns at the wheel, Coleman appeals in a performance that’s more playful than Katrina Lenk’s unfortunately standoffish Broadway outing. It doesn’t hurt that she gets to bounce off such love interests as Jacob Dickey’s flight attendant Andy, a self-deprecating himbo with a dumb grin and sluggish reactions (a storytelling upgrade from the dated cliché of a character the male Bobby beds). As another one of Bobbie’s would-be beaus, Tyler Hardwick gracefully carries the melodic perfection of “Another Hundred People” and its wistful reflection on New York City’s enduring transience.

End of carousel

It all unfolds against Bunny Christie’s geometric, neon-framed sets, which crowd Bobbie in ever-constraining boxes as she goes from one New York apartment to another. But the show is at its most dazzling when those modular units are rolled offstage and Coleman’s red jumpsuit pops against a haze of violet light during the Act 1 finale “Marry Me a Little.” (Christie also crafted the costumes; Neil Austin is the lighting designer.)

Choreographer Liam Steel ups the visual ante throughout the show, deploying the cast in an array of comically timed tableaus. But the Kennedy Center’s sprawling Opera House did prove to be an awkward fit for “Company’s” inherent intimacy at Thursday’s opening night performance, as dialogue echoed and vocals occasionally failed to envelop the space.

When it comes to evaluating Sondheim’s eclectic oeuvre, many are understandably partial to his more genre-driven endeavors — “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and the like. Yet Sondheim’s lyricism is uniquely suited to articulating the complexity and contradictions of day-to-day life, and his musical collaborations with Furth — “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along” — represent the composer at his most relatable. Between this “Company” staging and the expertly calibrated “Merrily” revival now on Broadway, we’re in a moment of renewed appreciation for Sondheim the humanist. Such is his genius: Even in death, no one captures the lived experience quite like the master of musical theater.

Company, through March 31 at the Kennedy Center. About 2 hours 45 minutes. kennedy-center.org.

SOURCE

Leave a Comment