Theatre followers will know that the current revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company is the most celebrated show in London right now, at least. It might be the most celebrated show in the world, given how reviewers are positively falling over themselves to exalt it more than everyone else, trying to get closer to it so some of its glory can rub off on them OR SOMETHING. I don’t know why they’re doing it, because I am literally the only reviewer not joining the overhype club. As we saw a few months ago, I thought this gender-switched revival of Company was…fine. Not life-changing, and certainly not revolutionary in the musical theatre realm as so many are claiming, as they’re distracted by the main character now being female and overlooking that, even with the switch, it remains an out-dated, old-fashioned, kind of sexist show. So why did I see it again?
Bitch I’m never wrong.
It’s fine, and yes it was a lot more enjoyable with Rosalie. She is so nuanced and likable in all her work, and she’s lovely here, and best in the book scenes. However, some of the music still falls flat without a big-voiced singer, and there doesn’t seem to be any emotional stakes for her. I didn’t feel anything during “Marry Me a Little”. “Being Alive” has always been one of my favorite musical theatre songs, yet this production has made me question that, because it’s performed kind of quietly and without power. Is this song only riveting when it’s sung to the rafters? The repeated, simple melody and its concise, moving lyrics require an obvious showing of growth and reflection and decision-making shown through dynamic, evolving, and emotional singing – otherwise, it’s stagnant and weak. And that’s what happens here. Her acting is great but it’s not coming across through the music as it should. Without the emotion that belting can help express, the song lost its power. And I’m not usually one to worship belting over acting, but for this song, it only fulfills its fullest emotional potential when the singer’s soul is laid bare, when they’re being completely vulnerable and opening up to the audience and getting everything they feel out there. It’s no longer a mesmerizing character moment when it’s “hmm I guess I do want to find love, as I already told you” versus “HOLY SHIT IF I DON’T FIND LOVE I AM GOING TO EXPLODE.” The latter way is gripping and powerful; the former is just meh.
That’s generally how I feel about the show overall. I still don’t find the gender switch all that interesting. Yes, it’s great to switch up classic roles so that it’s not just white men getting big parts, but I feel that others are forcing more meaning onto the switch than it actually has. It’s cool to see how the show works with a female Bobbie, but that’s really it. Having one doesn’t make this the definitive story of our times or anything. I said before that I found a female Bobbie less compelling than a male Bobby, because of two (potentially contradictory) reasons: 1) society has always bothered women about getting married up, so it’s not anything radical to have a woman thinking about the pressure versus the desire to marry; whereas for a man it did seem more unique; and 2) in this age, it’s bullshit to put that pressure to marry on women anymore.
As for #1, I guess I can understand people finding Bobbie’s situation compelling even if it’s absolutely run-of-the-mill, because maybe they identify with it as an everywoman kind of thing. I just didn’t feel any conflict in Bobbie’s own perspective of her situation, because she says throughout the show to her friends that she is ready for marriage and has indeed been trying. They don’t seem to bother her about being unmarried so much as they ask her a question and she eagerly tells them that she wants to get married. There’s no big change in her thought process or anything, nor is there pressure from the married friends. The people around Bobby in past productions seemed to be incessantly bothering him, with the staging effectively showing them crowding him and coming closer and closer into his personal space, while he needed to finally come to this conclusion himself. Here, it’s like Bobbie already knows and tells her friends from the start that she wants to get married and has been trying, so like…yeah, that’s that. So the big revelation of “Being Alive” actually feels ill-timed here, and overall ill-fitting, since Bobbie has already told us – repeatedly – the revelations she’s supposed to be having in the song.
As for #2, in my first review, I shot this down from my perspective as a woman about Bobbie’s age: Since I don’t feel it or see it, I said this pressure isn’t a thing nowadays and no one cares about unmarried 30-somethings. And while this is my experience, I realize that’s not true for everyone. And, aligning my perspective with Bobbie’s since we’re the same demographic was ill-informed, because the character/s I should be identifying with are the married friends. Of course no one is bothering me about getting married since I am; and although I don’t see it with my single friends or with society at large, it’s not my place to say that it’s wrongly represented. But what I can say is that literally no younger married couples bother their single friends about getting married. We don’t give a shit as long as you’re happy. And if you do want to get married, no actual friends would nag about how you should really hurry up. That’s not a friend, then. In this production, there really isn’t any nagging anyway, not compared to others. Her married friends kind of say ‘eh you looking to marry soon’ and Bobbie’s like ‘YEAH LOVE TO’ and that’s that. There’s more of the couples hoping that she’s happy than anything, and telling her she’s lucky to be single. So the more I think about it, it’s not even that the pressure on the lead character wouldn’t be a thing today – the pressure doesn’t even seem to exist in the play universe. So what’s the conflict? Just that she’s putting the pressure on herself? She seems pretty content though, just aware that she wants to find the right person. WHERE IS THE PROBLEM.
Aside from the nonexistence of the central plot or emotional journey, the show is very entertaining. The supporting cast is great, although I was terrified from more recent word of mouth that the hamminess had upped to unbearable levels. Considering how much scenery Patti LuPone was chewing in previews, I was scared that none of the amazing set would be left. Luckily, everyone was still operating within optimal limits. While I still don’t think Patti’s/Joanne’s new book scenes around “Ladies Who Lunch” work at all, her performance of that song and of “The Little Things You Do Together” were stronger. Best of all, Jonathan Bailey is still stealing the show and making it all worthwhile with his “Getting Married Today”. His Jamie is manic hilarity without going to over-the-top annoying, and it’s the funniest scene, absolutely pitch perfect in every way, with credit to Daisy Maywood’s Priest and just impeccable staging. And I still love Gavin Spokes’s Harry (so heartfelt with is “Sorry/Grateful”) and Richard Fleeshman’s Andy. They’re wonderful.
I don’t often get to see shows in previews and again after opening, so I was shocked that a lot of changes actually did happen. For one, the entirety of the “Tick, Tock” sequence exists now. There was absolutely nothing of that when I saw it earlier, and now there’s at least a five-minute segment of Bobbie having a nightmare about her biological clock and seeing snippets of her potential lives (played by new company members – there are so many silent ensemble members now!) if she married this guy or that and had a baby or several. It’s pretty interesting although it’s unclear what her takeaway is.
Speaking of those new cast members, they’re also used to fill the subway carriages even more in the wholly substandard “Another Hundred People”. I said enough before about how bad it is, so suffice it to say it’s still bad, just with more people involved.
The other disappointing thing that I didn’t mind the first time was the production of “Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You”. The choreography – some of the only choreography in the show – is mostly fun complicated hand movements while the cast is seated, very “War is a Science”. It’s not dancing. Sometimes they play party games. Yet they felt the need to have the cast do exaggerated, vocalized ‘huffs’ no less than FOUR times during the song. Guys. Musical theatre usually requires dancing while singing; all of these performers have done and can do that easily. It’s weird to pretend the cast is so exhausted from their one bit of choreo, and it’s not funny to repeat the same ‘huff huff huff huff!’ four times. Man alive.
So, I tried again and while I am so happy I saw Rosalie, who is great, it’s still not a compelling take on the material. This version, which on paper seems like a no brainer, somehow lacks any reason for us to be interested in Bobbie’s situation. Whenever a higher-up takes a look at a movie script or an early novel draft, the first question they ask about the lead character is “Why do we care about them??” It’s important to be able to answer that.