Onstage: In Good Company

Cincinnati Playhouse production makes the grade on Broadway

Dec 6, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Paul Kolnik

The cast of Company deliver one of several stirring numbers in the Broadway debut of Stephen Sondhiem's musical.

NEW YORK CITY — Based on the buzz on Manhattan's 47th Street on Nov. 29, Cincinnatians should have no doubt that something created on a stage locally can wow audiences in the theater capital of the world. All 1,096 of the seats at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre were filled to see a show that, in all but a few details, was exactly the same production of Stephen Sondheim's Company that played to sold-out audiences at Playhouse in the Park in March and April 2006.

The production drew a lot of attention last spring because it was staged by British director John Doyle, whose revival of another Sondheim show,

Sweeney Todd, was then a hot ticket on Broadway. Doyle has made a name for himself in recent years by assembling productions in which the actors not only perform a musical but also undertake the task of accompanying one another musically. Sweeney, a chilling tale of a serial killer in Victorian London, was made all the creepier by Doyle's spare staging, and it earned the director a 2006 Tony Award as the season's best director of a musical.

Doyle's Sweeney staging had originated in England at a small theater, then moved to London's West End, where it was almost universally praised. A number of Broadway producers vied to bring Doyle to Broadway for a re-mount of the unusual staging.

While that was going on, the Cincinnati Playhouse's Ed Stern took Doyle out to dinner and asked him what he'd like to do next. Doyle confessed that he'd like to take a run at Company, a Sondheim show about love and relationships dating back to 1970. He and Stern struck a deal, and Company became the hit of Stern's 2005-06 season in Cincinnati.

(It landed six Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in August, including best musical.)

But could a production created in Ohio really cut it in New York City? Based on the Nov. 30 New York Times, the answer is a solid "yes."

Ben Brantley, whose reviews make or (more frequently) break Broadway productions, called Company "unexpectedly stirring." Describing it as "a sort of oratorio for the church of the lonely," Brantley said Doyle's unusual staging "gets under your skin without your knowing it."

The title of Brantley's review, "A Revival Whose Surface Tundra Conceals a Volcano," was prompted by the performance of Ral Esparza, who plays Bobby, a man surrounded by married acquaintances who has been unable to sustain a relationship on his own. Instead, he vicariously observes his friends' relationships — none of which are perfect — and finds reasons to put off making a commitment. But he knows he's missing something, and we see it burst forth in the show's finale, "Being Alive."

Brantley wrote, "In keeping the lid on (his) volcanic energy, (Esparza) makes Bobby's climactic explosion inevitable."

Brantley wasn't the only one who was impressed. I wandered the theater at intermission and overheard many conversations about how much people in the audience were engaged by Doyle's approach to the classic show and how orchestrator Mary-Mitchell Campbell had taken the score's late '60s Pop sound and made it sound more timeless and classic. In the crowd I saw noted performers like Angela Lansbury (who starred in the original production of Sweeney Todd), David Hyde-Pierce and Ben Vereen with exuberant smiles.

The sound of Disco was eradicated from the production, but the beat was present later in the evening, when the opening night party moved most of the audience (and I suspect quite a few more) to the vast Copacabana. Barry Manilow's Lola wasn't there, but the thumping recorded music certainly kept pulses throbbing. Of course, an open bar and lots of food stations fueled the evening's high spirits.

Most of the cast showed up, quickly shepherded to a publicity photo area, complete with a velvet rope. Media and other admirers hung nearby hoping for a quick conversation or a hug from a performer.

In the crowd I saw George Furth, who wrote Company's witty comic scenes. The reclusive Sondheim, who slipped into the theater just before the show began and left during curtain calls, did not make an appearance.

I had a quick word with Esparza, whom I interviewed several times here in Cincinnati. He was emotionally drained from the performance and all the attention, amplified no doubt by a feature about him in the Nov. 26 Times that discussed his recent divorce and his questions about his own sexuality.

That had resulted in an interesting moment onstage when the character Peter (Matt Castle) asked Bobby, "Did you ever have a homosexual experience?" One man in the audience guffawed loudly. Esparza paused for a moment, then delivered his next line, "I beg your pardon?" The knowing audience erupted in laughter, and the scene continued.

In fact, the convergence of reality and theater likely made Esparza's performance all the more immediate and conflicted. I saw Company twice in Cincinnati last spring, and he was certainly passionate. But on the New York stage, he pushes his performance to a higher, more fervent level in the show's second act when his fa