Monday, June 20, 2011

Larry Kert Spoiled Me Forever

Last week my local moviehouse showed the film version of a slightly staged concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”  The auditorium was a small one, doubtless because the other filmed plays I’d seen had been shown in the theatre’s largest auditorium to too many empty seats. The house for “Company” was so packed that I had to sit much closer to the screen than I like.  Additionally, films never start when they’re stated — there are commercials, then there are 7-15 minutes of trailers.  Even the other filmed performances of plays I’d seen so far had introductions.  Therefore when “Company” started at one o’clock just like it said in the schedule, not everyone was even there yet.  People kept coming in, searching for seats in the back, then climbing over those of us in the front. Once settled, though, that audience had a fine time.  Mostly.

My basic understanding of this production was that it had four performances at the New York Philharmonic, and its minimal staging was probably to make the filming appear less static.  Director Lonny Price did what he could in a short space of time, but this production of a great Broadway show with TV stars looked like what it was:  a vanity production.  The music, as conducted by Paul Gemignani, was swell.  The performance was more than flawed.

Full disclosure:  I saw the original production of “Company” on Broadway back in the 1970s, albeit not with the entire original cast.  Dean Jones had moved on, and the incomparable Larry Kert had taken over the role of Bobby.  PBS Great Performances broadcast the 2008 revival in which the producers avoided paying any musicians by casting actors who could play instruments.  While I’m not sure that was the point, I did find the intrusion of an instrument before and between actors diminished the impact and the relationships. 

All this is to explain that I’m familiar with this musical play, the score, and I was disappointed with this production.  One of the things I love about Sondheim is that he writes songs for actors.  This does not mean, however, that the actors should not be equally adept at singing.  Really adept, I mean good singers.  No one need be a triple threat.  But too many of the cast of this production were not good singers.  They were competent to different degrees, but some of them weren’t as good as the singers in my college production of “Company” (for which I was a dresser for the Bobby, as part of my costume design credits that semester).

Let me say that in general, I really like Neil Patrick Harris.  However, as with many actors who have the power and wherewithal to create a production or a film around themselves (and I don’t know that he did so here, but I have my suspicions), I don’t think he knows his strengths or weaknesses.  I noticed on the Tony broadcast this year that he cannot dance as well as Hugh Jackman, but I give him credit for working at it.  I really wish he could dance, though, because “What Would We Do Without You” was quite a dull number, which was exacerbated by the poor camera direction.  Harris is charming, and he can sing to a certain extent, in a sweet, natural way.  He does not, however, have the vocal chops to sing Bobby.  He can act it, but Bobby’s the lead and the actor should be able to sing my favorite song from this (and many another) show, “Being Alive,” to the heavens.  Rafters.  Nosebleed seats.  Wherever, the entire story — such as it is — leads up to this song.  It should blow me away.  It did not.  Scroll up to the title of this review if I’ve confused you. 

Not everyone was a disappointment, and much of this casting is good, as were all members of “The Vocal Minority.”  In alphabetical order:
Craig Bierko as Peter overacted a bit in terms of the cameras, but his speaking and singing voice is powerful and gorgeous.  And his final scene with Bobby, after his "divorce," was hilarious.
Stephen Colbert as Harry was very good until he sang.  Please hit the note, don’t slide up to it, it’s not a difficult note.  He did this every time he sang the word “always” in “Sorry Grateful,” which is often.  Other than that, he was physically fabulous with Martha Plimpton, great timing, very funny.
Jon Cryer as David also slid to his notes and sang “always” as “ah ah always.”  Good work from an acting point of view, but not a good enough singer for Sondheim in particular, musical theatre in general. 
Katie Finneran as Amy was downright fabulous.  The only real emotion of the entire evening was her heart-rending statement to Paul, “I just don’t love you enough” (followed by his silent devastation).  She didn’t do her song, “Getting Married Today,” as I have come to expect it, but she was so good I didn’t care if she was veering off the standard.  A glowing performance.
Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby I’ve discussed above.  I’m a fan of Dr. Horrible, I enjoyed him in “Assassins,” I just don’t think he has the stuff — although he certainly has the charm to act it — to sing Bobby. 
Christina Hendricks as April.  Well. Much as I like Ms. Hendricks as an actor, she can’t sing.  Or dance.  She can act April terrifically.  Except she really cannot sing.  Hitting the notes in the right order, even if you don’t slide up or down to it as she and Colbert and Cryer did, does not qualify as singing.
Aaron Lazar as Paul was warm and lovely. He and Katie Finneran as Amy had the best scene, fully focused, honest, heartfelt, just gorgeous.  He’s a lovely Paul.
Patti LuPone as Joanne.  This is a good role for her, she should play it in a full production.  No surprises, she does just what you’d expect her to do, and does it well. 
Jill Paice as Susan was very funny, terrific voice and presence.  Such a legit voice, while necessary for Susan, is not needed for the whole show, but everyone should be as good a singer as Paice is, in their own way.
Martha Plimpton as Sarah has terrific comic timing and her physical humor with partner Colbert was a delight.  Their scene was the high point of first act.
Anika Noni Rose as Marta was initially kind of off and then got better.  The first few verses of “Another Hundred People,” although vocally adept, weren’t full of the excitement and joy Marta has, but as Anika progressed I enjoyed her Marta more and more. 
Jennifer Laura Thompson was very good as Jenny, a good combination of actor and singer.
Jim Walton as Larry did some lovely acting, clearly devoted to his acerbic wife Joanne.
Chrissie Whitehead as Kathy was adequate in the acting, nice dancing of mediocre choreography. 

The stoned scene (which felt surprisingly dated) highlighted some interesting unpleasantness in George Furth’s book.  “Dumb” comes up about a few of the women, in both the book and lyrics.  The women characters all have their strengths; yet the men — who are barely distinguishable from one another — don’t speak well of women, specifically and generally.  Not all of this musical play ages as well as the score. 

What can I say.  I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of money going to see this at the New York Philharmonic.  I’ll just stick with my original score recording — even though it lacks Larry Kert until the final, bonus track!

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, turning up the stereo.  Any Sondheim will do.


  1. I have Company the Original London Cast which has Larry Kert taking over for Dean Jones, they basically took the OBC and just had Larry sing over the top and brought the level on Dean down so you can't hear him, though you can sometimes, but barely.

    Interestingly Larry Kert's version of Being Alive is different on the OLC than on the OBC, I prefer the take they used as the bonus track on the OBC. If you want the recording let me know.

  2. Actually I enjoy Neil Patrick Harris's voice. I also liked Raul Esparza's.

  3. I did just find Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence's performance of Tonight from West Side Story on You Tube. It was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. They both had incredible voices. Larry Kert in particular has such a natural and unstrained melodic tone. I wish I could find his version of Company.

  4. I mean Larry Kert's version of Company Online. And I agree I would prefer the actors not be playing instruments.

  5. Also I liked Colbert's voice. I wished I could sing as well.