June 19, 2011

MOVIES: Company (Lonny Price, 2011)

Earlier this year, the New York Philharmonic presented a concert production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company, with the sort of all-star cast that you can only land when you're doing a weekend-long run. Now, as a special theatrical event, we're getting a film of the show, and I think it's the best Company I've ever seen or heard.

The casting is very smart. The more difficult numbers (and there are some doozies in this show) are given to Broadway stars who have the serious musical chops required; to draw the non-Broadway audience, we have some fairly big TV names.

The TV folks tend to be, as they say, actors who can sing a bit, but their numbers are the less difficult ones. Stephen Colbert acquits himself reasonably well on "Sorry-Grateful," and Christina Hendricks is adequate to the demands of "Barcelona." This group of actors really shines, though, in the book scenes. Company is a show with a lot of dialogue scenes, and they require skilled comic actors. Colbert and Martha Plimpton do a wonderful job with the karate scene, and Hendricks' delivery of the butterfly speech is a delight. Jon Cryer makes less of an impression; he might not as well be there, so thoroughly does Jennifer Laura Thompson blow him off the stage in the pot-smoking scene.

The show's more demanding songs often fall to the women, and the Philharmonic has assembled a spectacular group. Anika Noni Rose's "Another Hundred People" is lovely, and Katie Finneran's "Getting Married Today" is the highlight of the show, as Finneran spits out that flood of lyrics with impeccable articulation, capturing every shred of Amy's desperate panic. Not only does Finneran get every laugh that's written for her, she gets laughs that even Sondheim may not have known were there to be gotten.

Patti LuPone has the unenviable job of singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," a song which will forever be owned by Elaine Stritch. I'm not a LuPone fan in general, though I was pleasantly surprised that her enunciation was significantly better than usual. Her interpretation, however, struck me as rather missing the point; she sings the song with a sort of hyper-precise rhythmic choppiness that's entirely wrong. It's a song of extreme anger and self-loathing; the only reason Joanne can say these things is because she's drunk. Sondheim's melodic writing helps to create the illusion of drunkenness, but the actress needs to help out, too; the song demands a certain amount of sloppiness, and LuPone's excessive precision didn't work for me.

The Philharmonic was fortunate enough to get Neil Patrick Harris to play the lead role of Bobby, giving them both an audience-drawing TV name and a legitimately skilled theater singer. It was a magnificent performance, and I've never heard "Marry Me a Little" or "Being Alive" acted any better than they were here.

The staging is clever, with a few simple set pieces and a little bit of straightforward choreography that makes good use of the limited space available. Even conductor Paul Gemignani gets drawn into the action for a couple of clever gags.

There are, I believe, one or two more showings of this film scheduled in select theaters over the next few days. If you have the chance to see it, you should; if not, then let's hope it eventually makes it to DVD.

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