Seeing it reminded me of the acclaimed Sondheim Festival which ran at the Kennedy Center back in 2002. KenCen produced six full-scale productions, and imported one from Japan (Pacific Overtures). I saw five of the six, but as finances are always a consideration in my life (Welcome To The Theatre), I skipped Passion, which I just can't bring myself to admire.
The five shows I did see were successful for me in varying degrees. I had the biggest problems with Sunday in the Park with George, which surprised me because the piece always moves me greatly. The concept at KenCen, however, placed the action in an art gallery, with the actors moving among paintings on easels, a distinct departure from the original concept. I never got used to it, and as such, came away disappointed in the production, and in its leading man, Raul Esparza.
But when I saw Merrily We Roll Along, I started to wonder if I had misjudged Mr. Esparza. Here he tore up the stage as Charley, and with the terrific Michael Hayden as Frank (the only production of Merrily I have run across in which Frank is sympathetic), they produced the single most memorable, most moving moment of the Festival. When, as college chums hanging out on the roof, waiting for Sputnik to appear in the sky, they sang hopefully of "Our Time," I embarrassed myself by breaking into tears.
I don't have strong memories of A Little Night Music, which surprises me, as it starred one of my favorite quirky actresses, Blair Brown. One of the Festival's few major casting missteps happened with this show, in the casting of Barbara Bryne as Madame Armfeldt. Ms. Bryne has a long history playing Sondheim mothers, having created both Jack's Mother in Into the Woods and George's Mother in Sunday in the Park. But as Desiree's mother in Night Music, she was pretty lackluster. I never for a moment believed this woman, in her prime, could have been granted a duchy for her sexual exploits with the King of the Belgians.
Surely the starriest of the Celebration was Sweeney Todd, with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baransky. They were both exceptional, and I fell in love with Baransky, who completely erased images of Angela Lansbury in the role. (I later enjoyed her in another Lansbury role, Mame, in a production which was rumored to be moving on to New York, but didn't.)
Which brings me back to where I started, Company. At the Kennedy Center, the main attraction was Lynn Redgrave as Joanne. I am a big fan of the younger Redgrave (I have a personal memory of her Master Class which I will save for another blog entry), but the night I saw the show, she was having vocal problems and came off a bit growly. But then, the creator of the role was Elaine Stritch, so nobody really cared. At the center of this Company, in fact billed above the title, was John Barrowman. A very pretty man, with a strong set of pipes, but he succumbed to what I think is a common problem with Company: everybody surrounding Bobby is more interesting, and he often fades into the background. It's hard to be dynamic when the role requires so much observing.
In this respect, then, the most recent Broadway Company's Bobby(Raul Esparza, by coincidence) had a distinct advantage. I cannot judge how he came off in the theatre, but with the benefit of screen close-ups of his reactions on the recently released video, he became the center of the piece. In fact, everyone involved with this Company came off very well, including the book writer, George Furth. In the past I have found some of the scenes unrealistic and a bit cunning, but in this production, the strength of the book writing came through. I confess that I was not wild about the concept of the cast playing their own music, which has become something of a trademark for director John Doyle. Perhaps it worked better in the theatre, but on screen, I just could not get used to seeing the actors hauling around their instruments while they were, you know, acting. Hard to infuse your character with emotional realism while nonchalantly holding a French Horn.
But I enjoyed the staging of this revival very much. There was no dancing at all; instead, the almost constant movement of the actors, including those on the periphery, reinforced the restlessness of this group of New Yorkers. I bet in the theatre it was real dynamite.
But please, get rid of those horns...