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Last week, the presence of a parasol at the end of Sweeney Todd struck me as a possible staging nod in the direction of Sunday in the Park With George. This week, despite a midsong downpour and a scripted cue for a whole brace of umbrellas in Company, there are none to be seen onstage, so I guess I’m going to have to look elsewhere for connections among the musicals in the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration.
There is a kitchen scene in Company that I’d forgotten about—one that’s given its full, hilarious due in Sean Mathias’ entertaining (if faintly remote) and fascinating-as-period-piece remounting of the 1970 musical. It’s the “Getting Married Today” number, in which a bride-to-be sings a frantic hymn to premarital jitters, and what I’d forgotten is that she delivers it while polishing the groom’s shoes at her kitchen sink, in wedding dress and yellow rubber gloves. As performed by a giddily disintegrating Alice Ripley at the Eisenhower Theater, it’s a genuine show-stopper, and looking back at Stephen Sondheim’s career, I suppose the song could be described as a situational precursor to the show-stopping ditties of Mrs. Lovett in her bake shop in 1979’s Sweeney. But not really. And besides, in terms of understanding the composer/lyricist’s work, it’s a dead end.
More to the point, perhaps, is the oft-noted romantic chilliness of the two shows’ leading males, Sweeney and Bobby, and also of George in Sunday, which will join them soon in repertory. Obsessions provoke the chill in each instance—a desire for revenge in Sweeney’s case, a single-minded devotion to work in George’s, and in Bobby’s…well, it’s his romantic chill itself that has become his obsession, at least for the two-plus hours he spends onstage. Commitment-phobic but unsure why, he looks at his married friends and sees mostly ambivalence, looks at his girlfriends and sees mostly flaws. He thinks he’d like to settle down—but can’t bring himself to actually do so.
At the Eisenhower, the curtain rises on a forced-perspective New York City seen from above, with Bobby (John Barrowman) seemingly falling in midair as he stands at center stage. A neat trick of cinematic projection makes the ground appear to be rushing up behind him, but it stops as other cast members appear, gathering for a surprise 35th-birthday party in his apartment.
Though Bobby is the most eligible bachelor around—Barrowman combines a soaring baritone with a toothy grin and frosty charm to suggest a singing Tom Cruise—he’s a perpetual third wheel at his friends’ get-togethers. “Bobby, come on over to dinner,” they sing as he blows out his candles, “It’ll just be the three of us.” And in the brightly comic scenes that follow, we see where that leaves him—seven times a godfather, without anyone special in his life. Even when he’s out on dates, he seems disengaged, ever the observer.
Company, which was regarded as conceptually experimental when it opened on Broadway three decades ago, is based on a collection of short stories by George Furth and structured as a string of vignettes in which Bobby visits his friends, one couple at a time, and gradually gathers the gumption to let go of his inhibitions about intimacy. Seen in close succession with the later, more completely integrated musical storytelling of Sweeney Todd, it seems almost revuelike, with Sondheim’s witty, tunefully conventional songs—there’s a bossa nova, a mock Andrews Sisters ditty, and so forth—sung to the audience rather than by one character to another.
Mathias’ staging is at its best during the book scenes (each a gem) and in its use of Derek McLane’s vertigo-inducing set, which seems alive with moving elevators as Howell Binkley’s inventive lighting scheme sends bursts of color up and down the buildings. Michael Clark’s video projections use split-screen techniques, iris effects, wipes, and all manner of visual trickery to place the action in bars, apartments, parks, and other New York locales.
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Oddly, these projected images are mostly decorative, when they might have been used more precisely to reflect Sondheim’s lyrics and clarify Bobby’s thought processes. There are shots of buildings, not crowds, for instance, during the song “Another Hundred People,” and when the leading man sings of the blend of traits he’s seeking in a partner (“a Susan sort of Sarah, a Jennyish Joanne”) the director passes up the opportunity to remind us which of his married friends Bobby is referring to.
Still, the ever-shifting background keeps the show fluid and cinematic during book scenes, and it makes transitions seem effortless. Mathias’ staging is sometimes less acute during musical numbers, though at the rapturously received opening this past Sunday, the audience hardly seemed to notice. In the title song, when Bobby is still an unknown quantity and needs to establish that his problem is the absence of someone special in his life, Mathias has him sing, “It’s you I love, and you I love, and you, and you, and you I love” straight out to the audience, without a single gesture to indicate that all those “you”s are the friends who have gathered to celebrate his birthday. The words are treated as if they were just noise in a production number that’s building to a big finish.
The musical moments he gets rightest are the ones that can be acted as short scenes—the duet “Barcelona,” for instance, in which Bobby insincerely assures a dim flight attendant he’s just bedded that he wishes she’d skip her flight and stay with him.
Still, even when the numbers don’t land with quite as much authority as they might, they’re attractively performed by a terrific cast. And when a performer is allowed to take charge of the stage and just belt one of the composer’s etched-in-attitude melodies—as a surprisingly sure-voiced Lynn Redgrave does in the evening’s boozier-than-thou eleven o’clock number, “The Ladies Who Lunch”—the show delivers the sort of showbizzy thrill that Broadway audiences used to take for granted, but that musicals have pretty much abandoned for spectacle and lesser joys in the decades since Company was written.
Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t generally try to deliver thrills in his scripts, except, perhaps, the thrill of recognition. In You Can Count on Me, the film he wrote and directed two years ago, he deftly captured the rhythms and subterfuges of familial relationships that have been outgrown but not yet abandoned. In This Is Our Youth, which will arrive later this week at Studio Secondstage, he reproduces the seductive give-and-take-and-take-and-take that keeps lonely people in friendships that have grown stale. Both scripts amount to slices of life—nothing much happens, but it happens entirely persuasively.
In Lobby Hero, which opened Sunday at the Studio Theatre, the author’s ear for vernacular is as sharp as ever. And this time, he’s given his characters an ethical question to explore. The story centers on Jeff (Jason Schuchman), a cheerfully dim, socially clueless security guard in a Manhattan apartment building. Jeff regards this job as a step back from the brink—he was booted out of the Navy and has been adrift ever since—and he reveres William (Clark Jackson), the disciplined, straight-arrow security supervisor who sees enough potential in his employee to have lent him a self-help manual titled Six Habits of Self-Motivated People. Jeff, alas, couldn’t get past the first two habits, but hey, he tried.
It would be hard to overstate how captivating Schuchman is to watch as he bounces nervously around the lobby, which is theoretically Jeff’s domain from midnight to 8 a.m., but which everyone else seems to dominate effortlessly upon entering. The actor makes the insecure security guard a man for whom tentativeness has become a way of life. He’s slight and painfully unsure of himself, with a whiny, nasal voice and a skittishness about silences that makes him fill them with idle chatter, jokes, and constant questions that annoy nearly everyone he talks to. He comes across as desperate to be liked, but he’s really just anxious for contact of any sort. He does not, for instance, take it as an insult when William says, “You just keep talking, and if I hear anything worth responding to, I’ll jump in.”
Joining these two every once in a while are city cops Bill (Daniel Cantor) and Dawn (Tina Frantz). Bill is a career blowhard who takes his job seriously, but not so seriously that he hesitates at an opportunity to drop in on his girlfriend (she lives in the building) for a quickie. Each time he does, Dawn, who is a rookie and still on probation, is left cooling her heels in the lobby (much to the delight of Jeff, who has plenty of fantasies about handcuffs). Dawn bridles, but she can’t really challenge her senior partner. That will change, however.
The catalyst involves William’s brother’s being charged with a violent crime, which leads to a series of ethical dilemmas for both William and Jeff, as well as to further developments I should really let you discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that no one emerges with integrity entirely intact, and that Jeff, who is at first only tangentially involved, gets twisted by so many conflicting forces in so many different directions that the poor lad might as well be a pretzel.
J.R. Sullivan’s staging tries for a mix of situation comedy and slightly heightened naturalism, and mostly achieves it, particularly in the scenes involving Jeff and his boss. The police officers are less persuasive, but they’re also stereotypes, so perhaps that’s inevitable.
The physical production is flawless, with the ’70s-era lobby so realistically rendered by Daniel Conway in wood, tile, plate glass, and neutral carpet that you half-expect to be able to take the elevator to the street at show’s end. CP