Monday, April 11, 2011

New York Philharmonic Makes Good Company

Posted By on Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 10:54 AM

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Members of an all-star cast proved themselves comic masters and decent singers, too, during the New York Philharmonic's weekend-long semi-production of Company, Stephen Sondheim's 1970 Tony-sweeper—a show-length illustration of the old adage "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." With a book by George Furth, the musical makes for the ultimate date night, serving up a subversive, jaundiced view of marriage for laughs before gooily, movingly reinforcing the institution. It lets you laugh together, cry together, but doesn't send you back out into the streets questioning your commitments.

One early number, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," boasts chipper, swinging, tripartite harmonies that evoke the prelude to Leonard Bernstein's 1952 one-act Trouble in Tahiti, as though Sondheim is picking up the mantle laid by that American opera's groundbreaking depiction of marital discord and translating it through a Broadway idiom (with a heavy dose of Bacharachian pop) for a new generation. Company may be timeless in its love-affirming moral, but it's also specifically of its time: Sondheim's overlapping duets recall the dialogue in an Altman movie; his wordy lyrics, sophisticated internal rhymes and impossible rhythms evoke the neuroticism inherent in post-60s romance.

The show's structured around five couples and their bachelor buddy Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris), the third wheel on five different bicycles ("side by side...by side!") and an object of envy, resentment and adoration for each: they all want to see him married, both because they think he'd be happier, and because they don't think it's fair if they have to be married and he doesn't. He visits them couple-by-couple, taking a tour of possible futures, glimpsing different martial permutations—it's like the windows of Rear Window spilled out across a stage—before taking out a series of girls, as though testing each for their bridal potential. Bobby eventually comes around to the married way of seeing things, finishing the show with one of the canon's greatest love songs, "Being Alive".

Harris hit its high notes, but his voice lacked power. He fared better as the comic straightman, playing Bobby with the cocksure charm of the confirmed bachelor, not unlike the character he's had plenty of practice playing on television. Most of the cast had more success with the bits between numbers: Stephen Colbert sang an adequate if unmemorable "Sorry - Grateful," but his scene with stagewife Martha Plimpton, their passive-aggressive resentment building to a karate competition, was virtuosic slapstick. The thin-voiced Christina Hendricks got through "Barcelona," but played her ditzy flight attendant with aplomb. Even the Broadway veterans managed little better. Anika Noni Rose garbled stiffly "Another Hundred People," but was a knee-slapper as the pretentious admirer of New York quirk. Recent Tony winner Katie Finneran couldn't get through the outrageous meter of "Getting Married Today," but she exchanged the jaw-dropping tempo for a turn of comic suffocation.

Still, the adequate singing was enough. After all, the actors were backed by the New York Philharmonic; Stephen Sondheim's music couldn't have sounded better. Conducted by Paul Gemignani, the orchestra held down the complex rhythms, complemented the vocal melodies with brash brasses and lush strings. Singers and orchestra may not have been an ideal match, but they were a good fit nonetheless—a perfect, imperfect marriage. As Sondheim and Furth teach us, that's the only kind there is.

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