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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
COMPANY
at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York

CRITICAL AGE
By Matt Wolf

  Raul Esparza as Bobby/Photo: Paul Kolnik

In his 1987 revision of Follies on the occasion of that show's belated West End premiere, Stephen Sondheim rewrote the climactic breakdown number for one of the two male leads, Benjamin Stone, during the musical's fabled "Loveland" sequence well into the second act. That new song, entitled "Make the Most of Your Music," found Ben learning to "compose" and "conduct" himself and, by extension, to begin to put right his troubled, unhappy life: a man saved from the brink by (metaphorically speaking) the baton.

The replacement number more often than not isn't used any more, itself replaced by the cri de coeur with which Ben originally let rip from Follies inception. But I thought of "Make the Most of Your Music" during John Doyle' s sensational, genuinely revelatory Broadway production of Company. Reviving for Broadway the show that immediately preceded Follies in the Sondheim canon, Doyle, the Tony-winning Scotsman, and his (by now characteristic) ensemble of actor-musicians deny any musical potency to Company's seemingly eternal bachelor, Bobby, until his own breakthrough number, "Being Alive," near the very end. And as Raul Esparza tears into the song - first seated at the piano, then on his feet center-stage - it's as if we're watching this Bobby, the commitment-phobe who after all is feting his 35th birthday, on his way to being Ben: the boy-man (not for nothing is he referred to lyrically as "Bobby baby") who first has to learn how to connect and who then, having connected, subsequently loses his way in middle age. Who ever realized before that in this respect, Follies is Company's sort-of-sequel.

There's little doubt that Esparza will one day make a fine Ben (or perhaps, even better, an ideal Buddy Plummer from that same show). For now, he's the best Bobby I've seen since Adrian Lester's startling occupancy of the role in London over a decade ago, a performance that brought Bobby back to the center of a show that can often seem as if it is about everyone but him. Esparza's approach is different from Lester's and far more full-on, but Doyle's conceit if anything works even better here than it did for a highly acclaimed Sweeney Todd that, in my view anyway, wasn't as richly inventive in New York (or as well-cast) as it was on the West End. But being so strongly non-naturalistic piece to begin with, Company benefits enormously from one's sense of an ensemble here all keeping time to tempi from which the emotionally clotted Bobby is left out. And since the piece is in any sense taking place in Bobby's own head, Esparza's move toward the piano at the eleventh hour really does make him alive. "Ladies Who Lunch," to extend the analysis further, this time around is denied the customary final applause, which doesn't for a second soft-pedal the tumultuous force brought to it by Barbara Walsh ; the final words seeming almost to hang in an echo chamber of Bobby's own making, Joanne's furious "rise, rise, rise" registers as Joanne's scathing reproach to the social milieu of which she is so unmistakably a part as well as a rebuke to Bobby who can stand back no more. It's time he, too, took a seat at life's party.

Suffice it to say that this production furthers the ongoing rebuke to notions of Sondheim as some sterile conceptualist devoid of heart. If the passions coursing beneath the cool, black chic of the design on some level don't get to you, I genuinely can't imagine what will. Or perhaps, like the Bobby of the first three-fourths of Doyle and Esparza's cunning re-conception of the role, you haven't yet allowed your music to come pouring forth.

 


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