Review: In a revival based on gender, the "business" loves poverty

If there’s ever been a good time to dislike “Society,” right now. No, the death of the composer-lyricist on November 26 Stephen Sondhei...


If there’s ever been a good time to dislike “Society,” right now.

No, the death of the composer-lyricist on November 26 Stephen Sondheim makes this moment more properly a moment of sadness and gratitude. He was, after all, the man who wrote these feelings into a beautiful song “Company” – “Sorry-grateful” – and in so doing, introduces ambivalence on an almost cellular level into American musical theater.

But let’s face it, the alarm clock that opened on Thursday evening at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater is not the Sondheim “Company” and writer George Furth (with director Hal Prince) unleashed on Broadway in 1970. Of course, the score remains excellent, and there are some perfectly engraved performances. in supporting roles, especially that of Patti LuPone as an undercut, Joanne scoured.

As directed by Marianne Elliott, however, in a gender-reversed version encouraged by Sondheim himself, what was once the story of a man terrified of intimacy becomes something much less interesting: the story of a woman who is rightly tired of her friends.

This woman – now Bobbie instead of Bobby, and played by the alluring Katrina Lenk – no longer hears the busy signal of the missed emotional connections that pulsed through the songs in their original incarnation. This time, what comes with her as she studies five partnerships and samples three lovers is the ticking of a biological clock.

Cropped this way, and with heaps of oversized token baggage stacked on top, the story comes to feel overworked and inconsistent. Gone is the positive lesson Bobbie learns from the sultry couples attending her 35th birthday party – a step she’d rather ignore. Instead, as if to prove that “Company” loves misery, this production drags it off the pedestal of its remoteness and into the mire of a long, dark night of the soul. At one point, she vomits into a bucket.

It is not that consistency has never been the strong point of the material. From the start, critics complained about a lead character who seemed dangerously recessive, observing the weaknesses of others in loose comic sketches that barely added up. No wonder: they started life as separate one-act pieces.

In one of these skits, low-level friction between a husband and wife erupts in a jiu-jitsu match; in another, the seemingly perfect glow of marital bliss turns out to be the glow of impending divorce. A third couple learn the meaning of devotion by smoking weed; a fourth couple – now configured as two gay men – hiccup on their way to the altar.

Yet, as chained by Sondheim’s diamond songs, “Company” offered a revolutionary way of looking at its subject, less through a microscope than a kaleidoscope. Insight-warming sarcasm was the hallmark of the style, which borrowed non-figurative techniques from mid-century drama and married it to a psychological sharpness rarely seen before in American musicals. The result was a new method of storytelling in which thematic consistency won out over conventional plot – and almost erased it.

While fascinating in theory and worth seeing as a way to reorient the original’s outdated sex politics, Elliott’s idea that material could be regenerated for a new era completely disrupts that consistency. Aside from Sondheim’s new custom lyrics, only a few of the changes made to accommodate the thesis analysis. One involves the gay couple, Jamie (formerly Amy) and Paul. For them, getting married is truly the terrifying unknown portrayed in the breathtaking “Get Married Today”. Explaining his decision to cancel the ceremony, Jamie (Matt Doyle) said, in a line that has been added: “Just because we can that doesn’t mean we should.”

This moment rings true. But when Bobbie takes advantage of Jamie’s nervousness to suggest that he marry her instead of Paul, she doesn’t seem needy or goofy, like Bobby did when he proposed Amy; she seems stupid and disrespectful. If Lenk fails to make sense of the moment, it’s not his fault. There is no line or logic that would allow it to do this.

Even more baffling is the scene in which, as originally written, Joanne, tired of Bobby’s passivity, and possibly hers, suggests they are having an affair. Unless she turns Joanne into a lesbian, which could have been more interesting, Elliott has no choice but to turn her into a pimp, tricking Bobbie into “getting out” with her husband, Larry. Maybe if Larry wasn’t a tertiary character, barely fleshed out in Furth’s storyline, it might not sound like a director’s greeting pass.

Still, it’s amazing what a little LuPone can do to distract from such things. Whether she swings her legs like a mischievous child or squatting on the toilet – yes, Elliott’s directing goes there – she brings her precision comedy and mesmerizing charisma to every moment she’s on. scene. Her two big numbers, “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Breakfast Ladies”, both left pretty much alone, are unusually tense and specific.

Too bad Lenk, so seductive in “The Band’s Visit” and “Indecent” is not so lucky, both poorly expressed and poorly managed. Bobby’s transformation into Bobbie came at the cost of a few ribs, turning the character into a rag doll. Unable to meet the dramatic and vocal demands of the role, Lenk seems simply pummeled by it. To be fair, Elliott’s staging, full of athletic work and scale contortions “Alice in Wonderland” against the almost too mesmerizing set of Bunny Christie, is quite a workout. Maybe that’s why Christie, who also designed the costumes, weirdly gave Lenk plain white sneakers to wear with his scarlet pantsuit.

But in trying to disguise the show’s review-like structure by centering the action in Bobbie’s mind, Elliott paradoxically makes her back down even further than usual. (At one point, she brings in a battalion of Bobbies, as if to compensate.) In response, you become extremely grateful to the supporting characters who have clear things to do and do them smartly, like Jennifer Simard as jiu’s wife. -jitsu and Claybourne Elder as himbo flight attendant.

Ultimately, however, the show lacks distractions.

Sondheim collaborated on a foul; it is not a contradiction that he was strongly resentful of the criticisms of Furth’s work on “Company” and yet (after initial skepticism) eagerly endorsed Elliott’s renovations. “What keeps theater alive is the ability to always do it differently,” he told The Times shortly before his death. It was not a simple bromide; Sondheim allowed a masterpiece like “Sweeney Todd” to be cut into ribbons for the Tim Burton film and saw the cult “Merrily We Roll Along” flop through more surgeries than Frankenstein’s Monster.

In this sense, this “Company” corresponds perfectly to its intentions: it is new. And frankly, I’ve never been less than riveted – so generally Bobby-style, looking at messy weddings. The chance to hear the full score live with an orchestra of 14 musicians is not to be taken lightly either; Is there an opening number more exciting than the title song?

So I guess I’m sorry-grateful. Sorry I didn’t like this version of “Company” better – and thankful that Sondheim gave the chance to find out.

Society
At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Manhattan; Compagniemusicale.com. Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: In a revival based on gender, the "business" loves poverty
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