COMPANY (Stephen Sondheim) – Blu-ray review

“Company,” for those who haven’t heard of it, is a musical comedy that debuted on Broadway in 1970 and won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, and, when it was revived a second time on Broadway, Best Revival of a Musical.

In fairness, it ought to be called “George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Company,” because Furth wrote the book and Sondheim contributed the music and lyrics. This Blu-ray/DVD doesn’t showcase the original Broadway musical or its 1995 or 2006 revivals. Rather, it’s the New York Philharmonic staged concert version, featuring a mixture of stage and screen stars, with Neil Patrick Harris leading the way.

I’m no fan of staged concert performances, but I will say that it’s a step up from a podium read. For this production, the back two-thirds of the stage is occupied by the New York Philharmonic, separated from the actors by a simple minimalist barrier not unlike those that keep crowds moving along in ticket lines. As the actors engage each other, the musicians have the best seats in the house—except for conductor Paul Gemignani, whose back is to the audience and who swivels around on occasion to watch the action. It’s not as much of a distraction as you’d think. In fact, it immediately reinforces the “concert” concept and the minimalist staging.

Since all the action takes place on a narrow strip of stage, the choreography is limited and there are only a few props—ones that look like ultra-modern chairs, with the actors otherwise using improv to produce imaginary objects as the situation arises. But even those are kept to a minimum.
What that does is put the emphasis on the lines, the songs, and the performers. For some, that would be a heavy burden, but this group not only shoulders it well, but seems to enjoy the opportunity. And in glorious HD, it’s the next best thing to being there.

Harris plays Bobby, the lone bachelor among his New York City friends. The play opens with all his friends gathering to sing “Bobby” to him on his 35th birthday and remind him that he’s always welcome to visit. He’s a third wheel who flirts with some of the wives and resists the attempts of others to find him a potential mate. He hasn’t been interested in marriage, finding his friends and their wives “company” enough. After that party, the audience sees Bobby taking each of them up on their offer to visit, and in the process the one-on-one and one-on-two discussions revolve around the benefits and pitfalls of marriage. As his three married friends sing, they’re “Sorry/Grateful” they tied the knot. The wives, meanwhile, sing about how exasperating it is that Bobby has resisted marriage as long as he has.

The couples are types. Harry and Sarah (Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton) are long-marrieds who have gone through all sorts of stages together, but their present stage—his trying to abstain from alcohol and her cutting back on the calories—have made them tense. Colbert, whose first professional gig was understudy for Steve Carell at Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, seems absolutely at home in this format and is nicely “matched” with Plimpton. When Bobby finds it hard to believe that Sarah has been secretly taking karate lessons, he wants her to demonstrate, and it leads to a real spat between her and Harry. You know that this pair will last, but it will be a struggle. Their marriage demonstrates the love-hate aspect of marriage.

The flip side of that is Amy and Paul (Kate Finneran, Aaron Lazar), who have been living together but only recently decided to get married, with Bobby as the best man. But one of them gets cold feet and it takes another talk with Bobby for that person to realize there’s a practical aspect to marriage that shouldn’t be dismissed.

More cynical is the much-married Joanne (Patti LuPone) and her most recent husband, Larry (Jim Walton). Non-theatergoers will appreciate the chance to see LuPone, who won a Tony her role as EVita and an Olivier Award for Fantine in the original London production of Les Misérables, just oozes professionalism.

The “perfect” marriage that’s not so perfect is illustrated by Peter and Susan (Craig Bierko, Jill Paice). She’s Old South and he’s a button-down-collar Ivy League guy. But when Robert flirts with Susan again and says he wants to be the first to know if they ever break up, the couple tells him, “Well, you’re the first to know.”

Then there’s Jenny and David (Jennifer Lauren Thompson, Jon Cryer), who are a positive version of the “opposites attract” maxim. Here, as David lights up a joint and the three of them get stoned, Bobby learns that one secret to marriage is doing things that are important to the other, and putting the other person first.

But there’s entirely too much learning in this play—so much so that it seems less a musical meditation on marriage and more of a formulaic dissection of it that relies too much on platitudes.

That’s also evident in scenes involving the three women that Bobby is dating. Kathy (Chryssie Whitehead) was once someone Bobby dated and is now his “female friend.” But in talking with her—“I don’t want to keep running around the city pretending I have a life,” she says—he realizes that the window of opportunity for friends to become more than that is really pretty narrow. This Plain Jane is ready for marriage in a big way, but no longer with Bobby. That’s the opposite of April (Christine Hendricks, “Mad Men”), an airheaded airline stewardess (as they were called in 1970) who has a “Coffee, Tea or Me” attitude and plenty more horizons to fly over. Or the saucy Marta (Anika Noni Rose), who’s determined to make it as a star in New York City (“I’m the soul of New York”) and puts her career ahead of relationships.

I have to say, though, that while “Company” satisfies well enough as you’re watching it—LaPone’s big number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and Finneran’s “No Getting Married Today” are particularly satisfying—the musical comedy just doesn’t stick with you the way a superior theater experience does. Afterwards I didn’t find myself thinking all that much about the themes and issues that were introduced, and the songs just as surprisingly evaporated from memory. If I watched it several more times I’m sure that some of them would stick, but what I remember mostly are images of characters engaging in scenes, not the songs themselves.

In a word? Gorgeous. Make that two words: Absolutely gorgeous. One of the take-aways from “Company” is how stunning it all looks in 1080p high definition. Colors are vibrant, and detail and edge delineation are amazing. Even when stage lighting makes Harris’s hair look blue on one shot, there’s no bleed, no haloing, no grain, no noise—just an incredible sharpness. It truly is the next best thing to being there. “Company” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, which is all but essential, given the way that choreographer Josh Rhodes tries to use the entire length of the stage.

The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 is sometimes curiously mixed. The songs have all the power and resonance of Broadway, but the volume drops and the tone seems flatter when the audience applauds and the production segues into dialogue.

The only things that could be counted as “extras” are a song selection function that allows you to go right to the tunes and a bi-fold printed on four sides from director-producer Lonny Price (with Kitt Lavoie) giving the story behind “Company” in general and this production in particular. There are some great stories about casting and rehearsal, including the tidbit that Colbert was so busy writing and shooting nightly episodes of “The Colbert Report” that they rehearsed him in his office—and opening day was also the first time that the entire cast was in the same place at the same time!

Bottom line:
I liked “Company” but I wasn’t bowled over by it the same way I as was by “Rent” when I saw that musical for the first time. That’s no reflection on the orchestra or the cast, because “Company” feels as magical as theater often does while you’re in the midst of watching it. It’s only upon reflection and by comparison to other musicals that it tends to suffer.