By Harry Forbes
Even knowing the central conceit of director Marianne Elliott’s clever rethinking of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 “Company” -- that is, recasting bachelor Bobby as bachelorette Bobbie -- didn’t prepare me for the marvelously fresh all round approach.
This production transforms “Company” into virtually a whole new show. For beyond the gender switching, Elliott’s staging is consistently inventive, and David Cullen’s new orchestrations give Sondheim’s music a bracing sheen.
The casting is strong. Katrina Lenk makes an appropriately detached but always appealing protagonist facing her 35th birthday at every turn (increasingly large mylar “35” balloons hammer home the point). The major shift of having a woman pressured by her friends to get married brings the show persuasively up to date, along with other cosmetic changes of cell phones and such.
The biological clock is always ticking, and that theme is hilariously illustrated by the “Tick Tock” dance, now a nightmarish vision of what Bobbie’s married future could be. (Liam Steel did the nifty choreography.)
Patti LuPone, the only holdover from the production’s London premiere, gives a wonderfully canny performance. Her Joanne in the PBS “Live from Lincoln Center” concert from 2011 impressed, so it’s no surprise to hear how well she nails “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “The Little Things You Do Together,” and at this point, I think it’s fair to say she owns the role of the hard-drinking socialite as much as originator Elaine Stritch. Her delivery of the “Ladies Who Lunch” to Bobbie now registers as a cautionary lesson.
George Furth’s comic scenes have never played so amusingly, but there’s underlying poignancy as well. When Jamie (formerly Amy) sings his fearful “Getting Married Today” (and Matt Doyle does it superbly at breakneck speed), followed by a nervous conversation with his intended Paul (Etai Benson), the talk suddenly takes a genuinely solemn turn when the depth of Jamie’s love is questioned. It’s a superbly dramatic moment that packs a heartstopping wallop.
Bobbie observes all of this, along with the concurrent marital bliss and woes of her other married friends Harry (Christopher Sieber) and Sarah (Jennifer Simard), Peter (Greg Hildreth) and Susan (Rashidra Scott), David (Christopher Fitzgerlad) and Jenny (Nikki Renée Daniels), and Larry (fine Tally Sessions at the reviewed performance) and Joanne (LuPone). Apart from Jamie’s gender swap, the couples are played as written, though there’s some up-to-date diversity.
Particular comic standouts include the opening jiu-jitsu scene between on-the-wagon Harry and fitness fanatic Sarah, and the pot smoking between David and Jenny, with the former getting high not his wife as before. Simard and Fitzgerald are particularly delicious in these scenes.
Of course, Bobbie’s three suitors are now perforce male, and the delightful trio “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is another showstopper as performed by Andy (Claybourne Elder, excellent too in the “Barcelona” scene with Lenk), Theo (Manu Narayan), and PJ (Bobby Conte) who does a fine “Another Hundred People,” originally sung by Marta.\
Bunny Christie’s colorful setting -- including giant letters spelling "COMPANY," and at one point “NYC” for this is, after all, a quintessential New York musical, and a series of increasingly cramped “Alice in Wonderland” rooms -- entertainingly lit by Neil Austin with lots of hot neon.
The sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph is exemplary, a rarity these days.
All in all, this rates as one of the very best Sondheim revivals ever. It’s so nice to know that the great man was able to see it before his recent passing.
(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; Companymusical.com or 212-239-6200)
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Top: (l.-r.) Patti-LuPone and Katrina Lenk
Below: (l.-r.) Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Katrina Lenk, Patti-LuPone