'Company': Theater Review

New York Philharmonic Company Neil Patrick Harris Christina Hendricks 2011
Chris Lee
As fun as it is to watch major TV names exercise their musical chops, dialogue is generally better served than song in this all-star New York Philharmonic event.

Even with a first-rate TV, film and theater ensemble cast with the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer, Stephen Colbert and Patti LuPone, the concert staging hit a few snags.

NEW YORK – “Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company.” So goes the title song from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s innovative 1970 musical about marriage, commitment and New York neuroticism. But Company has perhaps never welcomed such a starry guest list as the one performing with the New York Philharmonic.

The lineup plucks from TV (Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer), theater (Patti LuPone, Aaron Lazar, Katie Finneran, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jill Paice, Jim Walton, Chryssie Whitehead) and a talent pool that comfortably straddles screen and stage (Neil Patrick Harris, Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Anika Noni Rose). Musically speaking, the semi-staged concert was a mixed bag on opening night. But that eclectic cast in itself makes the four-performance run a major New York event, greeted with a hearty standing ovation.

The Philharmonic’s history with Sondheim includes a memorable 1985 Follies concert, considered by many to be that show’s pre-eminent recording; and last year’s Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, televised by PBS. Company may fall short of those predecessors, but it provides some rare pleasures. Unconfirmed plans are brewing to film the show in performance for theatrical screenings in June.

Harris is ideally cast as commitment-phobic protagonist Bobby, who marks his 35th birthday by assessing the pros and cons of his mostly married friends’ relationships while deciding if it’s time to take the plunge himself. More observer than participant, Bobby has been described by Sondheim as the camera. Harris is no novice to the composer’s notoriously tricky work, having performed in Sweeney Todd with the Philharmonic in 2000 and on Broadway in Assassins in 2004.

While he seems at times to be curbing his natural urge to go for laughs in this introspective role, Harris makes Bobby a believable anchor for the show. He’s the single friend adored and fretted over by every couple, doted on with a mix of maternal and sexual feelings by the women and quietly desired by one of the men (Bierko in a funny vignette).

In his key songs, “Someone is Waiting,” “Marry Me a Little” and especially the revelatory “Being Alive,” Harris faces stiff competition. Memories of Raul Esparza’s emotionally exposed renditions in the 2006 Broadway revival are still fresh. But despite a somewhat reedy voice, Harris puts across the songs with disarming sincerity and a stirring sense of self-examination. With more performance/rehearsal time under his belt, he could be a great Bobby.

Being under-rehearsed was a key obstacle here; reports indicated that the entire cast was only in the same room together for the first time the day they debuted. Sondheim’s songs are among the most lyrically, melodically and textually challenging work in American musical theater, and such complexity is best not approached unprepared. Even some of the more vocally accomplished performers floundered a little.

Rose (a Tony winner for Caroline, or Change, currently in a recurring arc on The Good Wife) has a luscious voice. But she saps the anxiety from “Another Hundred People,” a penetrating anthem to New Yorkers and their struggle to connect. Finneran (who nabbed a Tony last season for Promises, Promises) should have hit a home run with the manic pre-nuptial meltdown “Getting Married Today.” But her timing and clarity were off in a song that requires every word to be heard.

LuPone puts her own spin on that brilliant backhanded ode to the real housewives of New York, circa 1970, “Ladies Who Lunch,” which might have been daunting with the song’s eternal owner, Elaine Stritch, in the house. The number earned one of the evening’s most explosive applause breaks. But while LuPone brings the right note of booze-soaked cynicism to her dialogue, odd phrasing choices screw with her songs’ rhythms and undermine some of the sting of their words.

Director Lonny Price could hit the accelerator in the book interludes (no doubt another symptom of short rehearsal time), but these overall are more rewarding than the songs.

Plimpton (who can seemingly do anything onstage) and Colbert (way out of the closet as a Sondheim nut) make an inspired comedy team; their depiction of marriage as a no-holds-barred contact sport is hilarious. Cryer and Thompson also inject amusing and melancholy nuances into a pot-smoking scene that shows the fundamental divide separating husband and wife. Colbert and Cryer do a decent job on “Sorry-Grateful,” but that wistful song needs more expressive voices, which it only gets when Walton joins in.

The standout, along with Plimpton, is Hendricks as April, her curves packed into a flight attendant’s uniform from back when they were called stewardesses. Like many fellow cast members, the Mad Men star displays only a capable singing voice. But she has a lovely stage presence and delicious timing. Playing dumb with dignity, she gives Bobby’s self-deprecating girlfriend an airy sweetness that recalls Marilyn Monroe.

Nobody’s complaining about hearing this score played by such mighty musicians, with longtime Sondheim collaborators Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick handling conductor and orchestration duties, respectively. But despite a minimal plot that lends itself to scaled-down staging, Company is not a snug fit for presentation at this venue. In a hall the size of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher, the show’s intimate exploration of tangled inner feelings gets lost.

Unsurprisingly, the closest the concert comes to a musical bull’s-eye is the vaudevillian full-ensemble number, “Side By Side By Side.” With straw boaters and canes in hand, the cast have a blast.

Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York (Through April 9)
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Craig Bierko, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Lazar, Patti LuPone, Jill Paice, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, Chryssie Whitehead
Director: Lonny Price
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting designer: Kirk Bookman
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Conductor: Paul Gemignani
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Presented by New York Philharmonic