When a performance is an all-star cast, it’s difficult to structure the review. When the performance includes Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks stripping to their skivvies in a delicious act of “service ALL the fans,” thoughts of a performance review go right out the window, as one is entirely too busy giving thanks. However, one would be remiss to not give it a try, both for posterity – and pity for those unable to witness such an all-star performance, skivvied or otherwise.
For those unfamiliar with Company, it is a non-linear Sondheim story that follows the life of Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris). Bobby is turning 35, and via vignettes unconnected in time and often separated by song, Bobby discusses love, marriage, and living with his friends.
The show begins at the scene of Bobby’s surprise birthday party, and immediately there is a problem: when the full cast is on-stage, who do you watch? Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert are different kinds of intensely compelling charisma, Martha Plimpton is almost domineering in her presence, Patti LuPone skulks about the edge of staging in pure black (as opposed to the 70s gaudiness of the rest of the clothing), and Company (the song) and The Little Things You Do Together are almost too distracting. It is, admittedly, an enviable position to be in.
Thankfully, a respite comes when we shift to examining Harry (Stephen Colbert) and Sarah’s (Martha Plimpton) relationship. As with the majority of scenes, this is set up so that Bobby is the third wheel in a social setting. This allows Neil Patrick Harris to fade into the background a bit, and almost literally allow other stars to shine.
And in this case, that is precisely what Stephen Colbert does. It is entirely possible that Colbert is the perfect performer to play Harry. Much of this scene is prop-heavy, giving Colbert the opportunity to indulge in the comic timings he has perfected on The Colbert Report. As Harry mixes Bobby a bourbon, Colbert has the chance to deliver one of the longest non-Bobby almost-monologues of the show, explaining why he no longer drinks. It’s an almost-monologue because as much as Harry would like it to be an actual monologue, his wife Sarah is determined to correct his potentially revisionist history.
The almost-monologue stretches for several minutes, and Colbert gives a beautifully nuanced performance as a man becoming angrier and angrier – and the angrier he becomes, the tighter and more precise the drink-mixing, from slicing lemons to actually mixing the drinks, becomes.
Of course, this is not to discount Martha Plimpton. She clearly has presence – necessary to go toe-to-toe with both Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Her Sarah needles Harry into the fight they both appear to be looking for, and soon enough she’s showing her karate moves (after a very deliberate removal of her shoes that Plimpton played to a tee). As widely passed around in pictures earlier this week, this scene ends with Plimpton straddling Harris straddling Colbert. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the entire karate segment of the scene is the frozen awkward positions Plimpton and Colbert (and eventually Harris) freeze into while the Vocal Minority sing.
The karate segment gives Colbert the chance to engage in the broader physical comedy he excels at, and Plimpton more than holds her own. The two issues with this scene are simple:
- In 1970, karate was still new, and exotic for being Oriental. This is one of the few anachronisms that specifically sets the show in time. Is it outdated? Yes. Could it have been effectively modernized? Probably not – and this is the scene with Harry and Sarah. Removing it would not only gut their story, it would disrupt the next song, and much of the heart of the play. That said, should it, or anachronisms, be removed? The New York Times reviewer made much of the fact that the play was set in 1970, as if it’s lack of modernity is an issue. But this same set-in-timeness doesn’t appear to be an issue for How to Succeed in Business, and should not be an issue here.
- The second issue with this scene was not plot but seats. Or perhaps not seats but schedules. As has been widely reported, such an A-list cast required creativity and flexibility in rehearsing. The full cast didn’t rehearse together until Thursday (yes, opening day). This showed in the choreography of the fight – at least from 3rd tier, stage right (house left) seating, where half the scene was clearly choreography rather than karate. Somewhat oddly, the only convincing “demonstration” of Sarah’s karate skills come at the end, both the example before Bobby gets involved, and when he did. Perhaps these looked better because it was more grappling and less precision.
Harry and Sarah’s fight complete, Sarah exits stage right and Bobby asks if it’s worth it. Here Colbert gets to show off the fact that he’s a true triple threat. Sorry-Grateful is a wistful song that does not require the powerhouse belting that some of the other songs do. Instead, it relies on the performers to express all of the conflicting emotions that rise up when “You always are/What you always were/Which has nothing to do with/All to do with her.” It’s a treat for Colbert fans accustomed to the blustering of the Colbert personae to see instead this sort of tender sincerity from the actor.
The next two stand-out performances belong to Jennifer Laura Thompson (Jenny) and Katie Finneran (Amy). Jenny is David’s (Jon Cryer) square wife, who spends the evening stoned with her husband and Bobby. She offers a fantastic portrayal of a woman unraveling under the influence, complete with a dramatically loose-limbed falling off the couch punctuated by profuse swearing. It’s made all the more interesting for David’s comment, after Jenny exits the scene: Jenny was faking it, for him.
Katie Finneran has the rather enjoyable – and relatable – role of Amy, the woman who decides on her wedding day that no, not so much with the wedding day. And while enjoyable, Getting Married Today a song that has some big shoes to fill. Finneran throws herself into the role and song (and couch) with a winding up gusto that pays off. She was sympathetic, she was funny, she was everything and all the panic that runs through bride’s head when she really realizes she’s getting married today. Finneran’s willingness to embraces the very physical nature of the role – rolling around the stage, face-planting into the couch – brought the house down, and justifiably so.
Getting Married Today transitions into Marry Me a Little, and finally into the intermission.
It would be remiss to not address Anika Noni Rose’s performance of Another Hundred People. A frenetic love song to NYC, there seemed to be something wrong with the sound mix on her microphone for most of the song, making her difficult to hear. When she was audible, she was not clear – enunciation was, sadly, an issue. It was easily the most jarring and distracting of the performances, and a pity, since Rose is clearly (from other material) a talented singer.
After what was quite possibly the most irritating signal that intermission was over (a repeated, long, slow flash of the house lights over and over and over and over again, giving rise to the theory that a toddler had found the light switch), the show reprised Bobby’s birthday party and again the eye had too many places to go. Once again, it was a very nice problem to have.
For slightly unclear reasons, the party shifts tone when one of the Vocal Minority hands Harris a cane. Suddenly the show goes a bit vaudeville, and from the vantage point of the 3rd tier, it’s interesting. The blocking has Harris climbing over the furniture and walking around the other singing actors. A red rose is on a small ledge, and as Harris walks over that ledge he smoothly palms the rose. In fact, the rose was so smoothly palmed, it was not actually clear who disappeared the rose until a bit later, when Harris showcased his magic skills, not by pulling a long magicians scarf from Jenny’s top, but by pulling the rose from the scarf. Note: see any magic show Harris decides to throw.
The scene becomes an almost exhausting rendition of a vaudeville act, complete with straw top hats and canes, and Harris and Colbert steal the scene. In this case, Bobby is exhausted while Harry is enthused. Harris channels his slightly neurotic Dr. Horrible character, tired of the contrived enthusiasm of his friends, while Colbert engages in the sort of full-body physical comedy that his comedic partnerships with Sedaris and Dinello tends to highlight. (Plimpton, to her enduring credit, quite literally throws herself into this, as well, reenacting this particular Colbert/Sedaris moment with about the same finesse.)
What can really be said about a scene that ends with precision hat-and-cane cakewalking, other than “you really just had to be there”? (Note that the performance was filmed for Broadway in the Theater, and should be available at local participating movie theaters June 15. Go see it.)
The next stand-out scene, which, eventually, leads us into Barcelona, is a stand-out for the a-fore-mentioned skivvies. April (Christina Hendricks) is seeing Bobby’s place for the first time, and Bobby’s attempts to get her in bed are continually derailed by the simple fact that April is, in her own words, dumb. Here, Harris is at his How I Met Your Mother best, channeling the womanizer Barney as April examines herself in the mirrored ceilings. As this happens, the wives of the show sing about their desire to see Bobby married, and from this particular 3rd tier vantage point, it was quite amusing to watch Harry ignore his wife while slowing “eating ice cream” – a very deliberate, slow movement, although there was nothing in the bowl.
Bobby talks April into his bed, and she strips down to her slip; the fantastic figure that Hendricks is known for is absolutely as advertised. What anyone familiar with Mad Men might be more surprised to learn is that Hendricks is a very lovely soprano, as well.
While Harris and Hendricks wrestle beneath the covers on the bed, and with a recalcitrant pillow that kept falling off the bed, requiring rescuing (her arm! his arm! once of the dancers!), five lovely leggy lingeried ladies (could.not.resist) come out to dance for the audience, giving rise to the sort of sentences one never really expects to write: goodness, they did require all the lingerie-dancers to bikini wax, didn’t they? And thongs to match their nighties, how cute!
The scene ends with the lovely leggy lingeried ladies leaving the stage, and the alliteration takes a break until the show breaks out the powerful weapon that until now has only been hinted at: the incredible Patti LuPone. She has, of course, been in prior scenes, skulking about the edge of the blocking in her jet black clothing, holding herself slightly apart from the rest of the couples, and doing her small bit to steal the scenes (something potentially more effective than 3rd tier stage right could see; much of the blocking for LuPone placed her out of direct view).
The second-to-last scene brings the entire cast on stage for Bobby, Joanne (LuPone) and Larry’s (Jim Walton) scenario: drunk at a club. While Joanne, Larry, and Bobby talk, the rest of the cast, their backs to the audience, are in animated conversation. In view of 3rd tier stage right are Harry and Sarah, cuddled on a couch talking to members of the Vocal Minority. Harry is fidgeting, checking his nails, adjusting the hem of his pants over and over, while Sarah does the “distracted wife” gestures of trying to get him to stop fidgeting. David and Jenny are also visible; Jenny delightedly watching the dancers while David’s boredom is palpable. It’s a nice amount of background visual noise to the dialog happening between Joanne and Bobby, which moves into the iconic The Ladies Who Lunch.
The Philharmonic audience, of course, knew what to expect and began to applaud when LuPone stood, vodka stinger in hand, to deliver the song. To call Patti LuPone amazing is to do an injustice to both language and her performance. She commanded the stage, transforming lyrics that can be, with all respects to Mr. Sondheim, somewhat silly, into powerfully biting, scathing, cynicism.
It was the showstopper before the showstopper, as rather uncommonly for a Broadway show, the penultimate song (typically the showstopper) is followed by another outstanding – and outstandingly popular – song.
Now about that vodka stinger. That very, very full vodka stinger. Like most divas, LuPone delivered the final notes of The Ladies Who Lunch at the very edge of center stage, throwing her arms open as she hit those final power notes. Throwing her arms wide open, and throwing that vodka stinger all over the first two rows, who paid +$250 each for the privilege. And bless them, for they clearly felt that privilege, applauding so hard and so long the play had to pause for the theatre to calm down.
The Ladies Who Lunch scene sets up the final song of the play: Being Alive. The peril of such a well-known song is that it can be hard to break it out of “standards” mode. With Harris helming the vocals, there was no worry of a rote performance. The song starts with alternating singing from Bobby and dialog from the principles, before Harris is isolated on stage in a spotlight. What Harris brought to this version of Being Alive is stark contrast to the almost-happy and optimistic tones found in studio recordings (see: John Barrowman, who often seems to perform in the same roles as Harris). Instead, there was a deep and aching longing for that somebody to love him too much, culminating in an almost anguished begging. It was raw, beautiful, and a bit haunting.
It’s an abrupt but fitting end to a temporaly disjointed story that is more a meditation on loss, life, and loving than it is any coherent narrative. But what might be a perceived weakness in the linear, looking-forward 20s becomes a timely reflection on the musings that hit those too-old-to-be-young, too-young-to-be-old mid30s.
The Minor Details:
- Stephen Colbert turns protecting his crotch from karate punches into art – or at least high comedy.
- John Cryer channeling a stoner – wonder how many people made either/or both Charlie Sheen and Ducky-grows-up jokes to their friends?
- Patti LuPone enjoys throwing things on the audience. Aside from the vodka stinger, she rather gleefully tossed glitter all over the first few rows during Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?
- Katie Finneran is one to watch, and seek out in other roles. It’s nice to have another female to add to the list.
- Christina Hendricks’s star is still rising.
- Colbert is criminally under-used on The Colbert Report. It’s always worth the cost to see him stretch and exercise his talent.
- How I Met Your Mother is keeping a brilliant star off Broadway. Whenever and however you have the chance to see NPH perform, take it and thank the theatre gods for the opportunity. You will not regret it.
A Little Bit Meta:
Bobby and Peter’s discussion of whether or not Bobby had “had a homosexual experience” was just a bit meta. They nicely paused to let the audience laugh.
(With thanks to No Fact Zone for links and pictures culled from Getty Images.)