Company (Players of Utica, 2014)

Players of Utica - Company CastPlayers of Utica opened its 102nd season last night with a sparkling production of Company, directed by Lonny Price, that is well worth your attention. The show features the most effective use of 1108 State Street’s space and technical resources I’ve yet seen; if Players hasn’t entirely overcome their current limitations, this team’s creative accommodations went a long way. Kudos to the cast and musicians as well for their precise and strong ensemble sound – among the best I’ve heard in Utica theater.

Company has been revived repeatedly in recent years, and although one can appreciate the show’s historical significance (it marks a clear before/after moment in American musical theater), it might not be aging well. One of my companions was completely unfamiliar with the show, and was bothered by the misogyny of the piece – something that also occurred to me as I watched this production. (The audition notice for the Players production indicated that one of the couples would be cast as same-sex, but that idea seems to have been abandoned along the way – I would have been interested in seeing where that led.) The exposition revolves around Robert, who remains single at 35, and his encounters with five couples that comprise his circle of friends. He is doted on by three girlfriends and treated as an object of fantasy by the others. Vignettes explore what Sondheim refers to as “the challenge of maintaining relationships in an increasingly depersonalized society.” I’ve never quite agreed with that take – every production I’ve seen leans toward “narcissistic” instead of “depersonalized.” Robert’s friends show him every reason not to commit even as they keep insisting he should; he eventually asks “What’s in it for me?” Sondheim’s answer to that question is the sublime Being Alive (“Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep”); whether or not the show’s themes coalesce depends greatly on how the actor playing Robert sings that number.

I saw Raúl Esparza play Robert in 2006, in a production where the actors also played their own musical accompaniment. It was a stunning production, and Esparza risked being unlikable and even ugly in his characterization – his Act I exhortation “I’m ready now!” in Marry Me a Little showed the cracked facade and laid the groundwork for his desperate, touching (and slightly ugly) Being Alive. Another approach to the character is Neil Patrick Harris’ 2011 interpretation, which favored amused detachment (he never got close to ugly.) At Players, Jake Meiss pitched his rendition somewhere in the middle – although he was consistently detached, he wasn’t smug and he was willing to play the jerk. During the first act, I felt an argument could be made that Meiss was doing solid, maybe brilliant work. Even when he sang “I’m ready now” and clearly wasn’t, it seemed a defensible choice. Meiss plays the character as a cipher – somebody his friends use for their purposes without ever seeing him as a person in his own right. But Company doesn’t allow its central character to remain in that space – if Robert doesn’t grow, the piece doesn’t quite work. Meiss kept his detachment, and sang Being Alive indifferently. I was disappointed – if he didn’t care, why should we?

Barbara Pratt and Benjamin Hirshfield do a nice job with their extended comedy sequence, as a sniping couple (he drinks too much, she can’t stick to her diet) who end up literally fighting – their inept karate demonstration brought down the house. John Murphy is an always-welcome presence in musical comedy – in addition to his smooth baritone, his urbane looks and huge eyes seem to promise mischief (I kept thinking of Peter Graves in the movie Airplane: “Billy, do you like movies about gladiators?”) Sally Collins was sweet as Jenny, especially when she had some marijuana and started swearing delightedly. (The cigarettes in this show never appeared to be lit – a distraction. There are ways to accomplish the effect theatrically.)

I last saw Sarah Smith in Bawdy Town, where she struggled gamely with bad material. Company’s April is a similar character to the one Smith played in Bawdy Town, but what a difference. I loved her wide-eyed idiocy, and her rendition of Barcelona was simple and lovely. I hope to see Sarah Smith play a meatier role at some point – something that allows her to move beyond gentle bimbo comedy.

Teresa Dunn is the showstopper in this production. Her Joanne is fearless and commands attention whenever she’s on stage. She seems to effortlessly capture “NYC Sexy,” and I had my fingers crossed for her second act number, The Ladies Who Lunch. She nailed it, and received the longest ovation of the evening, well deserved. I hoped she might have taken the opportunity to command the audience on her final repeated “RISE” at the end of the song – I would have obeyed.

I haven’t mentioned Marilee Ensign, Adam J. Lawless, Hana Meyers, Anthony Razzano, Lonnie Etter, Ally Priore or Jessica Sherman yet – this is a deeply talented group, and they each have moments and also share in the ensemble singing credit. It’s not easy to stay together and on pitch when the band is backstage with no monitors; they did it well. Bonnie Hibbard and her small group (Zech Allen on trumpet, Emma Garcia on bass, Darren Pohorecki on percussion, with Sara Crill, Liska Savage and Brenda Rogowski as “The Vocal Minority”) provided plenty of sound and only once overwhelmed the dialogue; the music was well prepared and well presented.

Art Felshaw’s set and Ellen Campion’s lighting worked for the production by maximizing what was available. Six LED pars were mounted all the way upstage, facing the audience. Because they were so obvious, their changing colors created the illusion that more was happening with lights than actually was – I don’t mean that as a putdown. I thought it was an interesting approach. Backlit plexiglass added ambient light and eliminated shadows from the front lighting; together, the set and lighting created a maximal playing space from comparatively few resources. Eric Manly’s followspot was unobtrusive and I would have liked to see it used even more. Bravo.

I loved the costuming, and how the colors were chosen to contrast with each other and the set. Frank Schram and Dan Fusillo’s poster gives a wonderful summary of this, in a pose that perfectly captures the production – it’s a great design. You recognize the tableau when the actors come together at the end of the opening number, and it’s thrilling.

Unfortunately, “thrilling” soon becomes a queasy kind of déjà vu. Although the program states “This production represents an amalgam of the 1995 Broadway Revival and the 1996 Donmar Warehouse Version,” it is actually based in huge chunks (and in countless small details) on the April 2011 New York Philharmonic production at Avery Fisher Hall. The show is available on DVD and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (as of this writing). My opening sentence in this review credited Lonny Price with direction of the Players production, because it’s essentially his work. Dan Fusillo takes program credit, but maybe he should be called “facilitator” instead.

Now, a director does a lot of things besides blocking: he (or she) establishes the vision, sets a tone, shapes the performances, and at the community level often cleans the bathrooms and drives the truck. Ideas come from all kinds of sources – it’s inevitable that some borrowing or adaptation will occur. (Jules Fisher, a great lighting designer, said there are no original ideas in lighting.) So when does it become plagiarism?

In 1998, noted filmmaker Gus Van Sant released a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). He didn’t try to take credit for an original interpretation – he was very clear in his intention. Roger Ebert wrote about Van Sant’s film, “The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted…Attending this new version, I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast.”

In this case, I didn’t feel that Players’ cast was inferior to Price’s group. (I liked several of the NY performers much less, in fact.) But similar to Ebert’s reaction to Psycho (Van Sant’s concept always puzzled me, too) I can’t figure out why a director would want to do a beat-for-beat remake of somebody else’s show. Aside from everything else, Price’s audience was NOT seated on three sides of the stage, which is the current Players configuration. Fusillo didn’t even bother to modify the staging – those on the sides watched a lot of profiles and backs.

Taking credit for work that you didn’t do can get you fired, kicked out of school, brought up on charges and sued. It’s unethical and lazy. And everybody who worked on this show deserved better. See it for the performers, and for the creative tech.