Review: Sondheim’s Company in the cinema

“When a person’s personality is personable, he should not sit like a lump”

With the amount of theatre I see, I rarely go to the cinema these days – my Cineworld card collected dust for a quite a few months before I admitted defeat and cancelled it – so when I received an invitation to a press screening of a film, I was amused and intrigued by the novelty of the idea. Of course, it wasn’t that much of a stretch in the end because the film was a recording of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company from last year’s Lincoln Centre (Center?) production in New York featuring Neil Patrick Harris and a cast of luminaries including Patti LuPone (who inspired possibly the greatest YouTube video ever), Martha Plimpton (her from the Goonies all grown up) and Anika Noni Rose (the one from Dreamgirls who wasn’t Beyoncé or who won an Oscar).

I have to admit I was initially a little wary about going to see this: my relationship with Sondheim took a bit of a battering in the deluge of productions that celebrated his anniversary year and it was only really with the utterly fabulous Sheffield Crucible production of Company at the end of last year that the pieces all finally clicked together for me and I could hand on heart for the first time say that I absolutely loved a Sondheim show. But I have gotten much better at managing expectations for shows, especially in relation to other productions of the same, and this was an opportunity to see a whole bunch of performers, whom I like but may never get to see, live on a big screen. And you’ll get the chance when the show screens for one night only on Thursday 15th March at 7pm – the list of cinemas is available here.

Staged by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by long time Sondheim performer Paul Gemignani, my heart sank a little as the camera revealed a long thin stage in front of the orchestra in the Avery Fisher Hall and it looked as if we were in for a concert version of the show (I hadn’t read anything about the show beforehand). Whereas it was a treat to see the 1995 Donmar Warehouse cast reunited in their recent concert reprisal, I didn’t think the staging really did the show many favours at all, but fortunately it soon became apparent that whilst not a full production, a simple set of sofas on wheels would provide an endlessly entertaining flexibility in portraying a range of NY loft apartments, balconies, bars and bedrooms. Plus a smidgen of engaging witty choreography sprinkled around the place under Lonny Price’s direction, the stage was indeed set for a most enjoyable night at the movies.

Through George Furth’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, Company focuses around the 35th birthday of Bobby, a singleton in a sea of married people who are surprising their eternal bachelor friends with a party. But where Bobby sees five visions of married bliss in his friends, in a series of vignettes we see something closer to the truth in the difficulty of maintaining marital harmony as Bobby eventually gets to a place of major self-realisation. I’d wager that it is one of Sondheim’s strongest scores with so many excellent songs, but the show’s success does rely on the casting of Bobby and in Neil Patrick Harris, they’re pretty much onto a winner here.

He doesn’t quite have the full belt to deliver the show-stoppers but what he does possess in bucket-loads is the kind of twinkle-eyed charisma and warm humour that completely convinces as a guy who can juggle three women at the same time as well as inspiring the kind of deep friendships in both women and men that sometimes blurs into something more. Patti LuPone was exactly how I expected (and dreamed) she would be, just simply terrific as the cocktail-wielding Joanne, frequently stealing the show with her acerbic wit and pointed delivery – The Ladies Who Lunch has rarely looked or sounded so good.

But there really was so much to appreciate across the supporting cast which contained a number of (barely recognisable to me) celebrity names from things I don’t watch like Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), but more importantly also featured a wealth of established Broadway talent. So whereas Hendricks actually did impress as the ditzy flight attendant April and Colbert isn’t half bad as he leads Sorry/Grateful, they are significantly bolstered by their colleagues, amongst whom Martha Plimpton’s gorgeously warm and hilariously karate-chopping Sarah really impressed as did Katie Finneran’s 100 word-a-minute Amy delivering Getting Married Today with great skill, Chryssie Whitehead showing off some great moves and Aaron Lazar being just smoking hot as Paul.

Only a few things didn’t work for me: sadly Anika Noni Rose’s Another Hundred People just didn’t quite hit the mark though I’d be hard pressed to say what it was about it, and there was one long-distance camera that either wasn’t HD or focused properly as every time we cut to it, it was really noticeable. The flipside to that is that the vast majority of the show is filmed with great clarity and the image quality is superb, capturing much of the nuance of performance and a substantial deal of the humour that comes from countless beautifully observed small touches, often involving conductor Gemignani. As a bonus for people attending Company on the 15th, there will be a Q+A session with Neil Patrick Harris after the show but even without that treat, I’d recommend this as a very accomplished, enjoyable production of a show that really does bear rewatching, especially when done as well as this.

Running time: 164 minutes
In cinemas nationwide on Thursday 15th March at 7pm – tickets available from www.sondheimscompany.com

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