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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Miraculous Moments: Company on Broadway

I don’t really go to all that many plays and musicals, but this season I’ve been lucky enough to experience three wonderful scenes that had an electrifying effect on audiences. The musical plays that surrounded these moments have all three been very uneven, but the best parts were good enough to make them worthwhile:

  • In Spring Awakening, when one of the students (in a play set in Germany in the 1890s!) first pulls a microphone from the inside of his jacket, and his classmates follow suit, as they sing “The Bitch of Living,” a rock song about the frustrations and excitement of adolescence.
  • In Grey Gardens, the opening scene and number (“The Revolutionary Costume for Today”) of the second act, which brings the cult documentary film to startling and hilarious musical life.
  • And now, in the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, the final song, “Being Alive.”

The actors also serve as the orchestra in this production of Company. Our protagonist, Bobby, a single man in a group of mostly married friends, is the only character not to play an instrument during the first two hours. Then at the end, he walks over to the piano, sits down, opens the keyboard, and begins to play – beautifully – “Being Alive.” And when he starts singing, Raul Esparza’s gorgeous and heartfelt performance brings the house down – no dry eyes anywhere.

The song and the performer are so good, in fact, that they highlight the shortcomings of the rest of the evening. You realize just how shallow and unmemorable the script is, as well as the overall conception. There are other very fine songs, but few carry the emotional impact of “Being Alive.” The direction and design are excellent, as they were in last season’s excellent production of Sweeney Todd. Even better than in that production, the music here is particularly well served by the actors-as-orchestra setup. But it all comes together with full power only in that last scene. And yet it’s enough, and it’s more than one gets from most musicals.

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