Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company” is a highly offbeat 1970s musical that follows the main character’s journey from his cynical attitude about relationships and marriage, born by watching too many crazy married people, to his awareness of the great Sondheim faith. Without love, life has no meaning.
Or, to illustrate this central narrative journey through Sondheim’s lyrics, Bobby sings, “Marry me a little, love me just enough. Cry but not too often. Play but not too hard” (in the erroneous notion that such an approach is a valid marriage option) and climax the show. At the point “Someone will stand very close to me. Someone will hurt me very deeply. Someone will sit in my chair, And disturb my sleep, And make me realize that I am alive. Being alive.”
The late great Mr. S., to quote another lyric from a different series, “Loving you isn’t a choice, it’s who I am.”
I believe that “Company”, which I have watched many times and admire more than almost any musical, is related to this. I don’t think that’s what director Marianne Elliott’s 2021 Broadway revival (which actually debuted in London) believes is about the show. On the contrary, his show often suggests the exact opposite. And so I resisted it when I examined it This production on BroadwayAlthough I have great respect for this talented director and a touring cast of such talent in the community I resisted again when I saw Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy in Goodman’s “Tommy”) and his Broadway tour as local favorite James Earl Jones II.
Of course, fixed ideas about musicals are always dangerous for critics, and Sondheim himself approved this new concept before his death. But this is crossing a fundamental line for me. The director’s ideas overwhelm and weaken the material. I have lots of examples.
Instead of having a performer sing “Another Hundred People,” one of the best theatrical songs ever written, and letting his voice and Sondheim’s lyrics sear the soul, this staging offers a hectic, quasi-comical romp around oversized letters. A brutal and harrowing examination of the loneliness of one-night stands, “Barcelona” is played mostly for laughs. There is no evidence in the final moments of “Being Alive” that the main character changes his perspective on anything. And despite all the boxes, props, and clever ideas on display, the themes explored repeatedly remain on the surface. The show is consistently charming and often funny, but with two distinguished exceptions it’s stone cold.
Elliott tries out two radical ideas, neither of which really work. The first is to change the main character into a woman named Bobbie, which is fine, we expect this to require a complete gender reversal, which means we now have male voices singing some of Sondheim’s best songs for women, and this brings us a different set of problems. which the show can’t quite explain. The second is to update the show. This could work, and after listening to the audience, I’ll definitely agree with how this idea renews the piece for a new generation. But in my view we can deal with the 1970s just fine; None of the issues most important to New Yorkers have changed that much.
Exceptions? Act 2 of Joanne “Ladies Who Lunch.” Judy McLane is gorgeous, just like Patti LuPone on Broadway. And especially on tour, “I’m Not Getting Married” is reenacted here as a scene featuring two gay men, one of whom is very tense: Bourzgui and Matt Rodin are show-stoppers.
For Sondheim die-hards, these moments may be enough, along with the chance to listen to this wonderful music and ponder the ideas Elliott brings to the table. Absolutely, this is a first-class tour, now with Britney Coleman as Bobbie, very stylish and attractive, if not particularly emotional.
But unlike Broadway’s spectacular new revival “We Continue with Joy” One of those productions that makes you feel like you’ve never needed to see this material done any other way, this “Company” feels like something more, born in a now-distant moment when anti-sentimental deconstructions of old musicals were all the rage. It’s like an intriguing experiment that doesn’t quite work.
Sondheim was about love, with all its pain, beauty, dysfunction, and necessity; What will be gained from fighting this?
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Company” (2.5 stars)
When: Until November 12
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Working time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Tickets: $27-$108 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com