Gender-Switched “Company” Doesn’t Truly Work for Many Reasons

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By Karen Isaacs

Who would have thought that Company, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s ground-breaking musical was actually a cross between an absurdist comedy and a sketch on the 70s equivalent of SNL?

Director Maryanne Elliott’s revision of the musical – and it is NOT really a revival –obviously did. This production plays with much more than just the gender of Bobby, the 35-year-old, marriage/commitment-averse hero who is now Bobbie, played by Katrina Lenk.

The problem is, do all the changes – which go beyond staging and gender – improve or add anything to the poignancy of the original production or even some of the subsequent revivals?

For me, the answer is no. In this case, more was definitely less. I left the theater in awe of some of the performances, but unmoved and uninvolved in the characters who seemed more like stick figures than real people.

The strengths of this production are some of the performances. Everyone is talking about Patti Lupone’s performance as Joanne. The night I saw it, the audience made the show a Lupone lovefest with rapturous applause every time she walked on stage. Is she that good? Certainly she nails the cynicism of the character and her performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is riveting. What was even better, is that you could understand the words; too often, Lupone’s diction leaves much to be desired. But I doubt that she will erase the memory of Elaine Stritch who created the role and for whom Sondheim said he wrote the role.

All the attention on Lupone tended to unbalance the show and make it more about her character than that of Bobbie.

The three men that Bobbie is bedding – Andy, Theo and PJ are all excellent. Claybourne Elder is terrific as Andy – the flight attendant who is off to Barcelona (or is he?). PJ, played by Bobby Conte is great in “Another Hundred People” and all three (Theo is played by Rashidra Scott) score with “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

Another highlight – and one of the changes that really works – is Jamie and Paul, the couple who are getting married. It is now a gay couple with Jamie, the brilliant Matt Doyle having second or third doubts in “Getting Married Today” and Etai Benson as his calm husband-to-be.

Which brings us to Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. Vocally she is fine; her rendition of “Being Alive” is good, she is hampered because of the idea of the character being a woman. What might seem both appropriate and normal for a man, somehow seems less realistic for a woman. The story she tells Andy about a one-night hookup in Miami, just doesn’t seem plausible for her. Not the hook-up but the other aspects of the story. Blame gender stereotypes but a superficial and cold woman is less likable than the same in a man. We often found the male Bobby somewhat sympathetic in his lack of understanding, but we don’t have the same reaction to a female Bobbie. Plus, Elliott made some choices that seemed to intensify the less attractive attributes of the character.

Throughout there are moments where it just doesn’t ring true.

Elliott – with Sondheim’s approval – has changed some scenes and lines. Joanne now suggests that Bobbie sleep with her husband, not her.  At other times, incidents weren’t changed that probably should have been.

In addition, Elliott decided that during the second act birthday party, Bobbie should be so inebriated that she “vomits” on stage. Why? Several other incidents are similarly unnecessary.

The overall feel of the show, particularly the sets by Bunny Christie overpower the characters and the performances. The set resembles a maze.

How you react to this version of Company may depend on your age.

Perhaps Bobby could be a woman, but this production doesn’t make the case for the gender swap. In the process of the staging, I lost the sense that Bobbie is seeking something that he/she is also terrified of and that at the end he/she is willing to take a leap of faith.

The result was too many laughs and too few honest emotions.

But despite it all, you have fine performances and Sondheim’s brilliant music and lyrics.

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