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Dispatch from New York: Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer, Neil Patrick Harris in 'Company'

April 8, 2011 | 10:19 am

NYP Company_Photo 1_Chris Lee

“Colbert Sings!”

It’s not exactly “Garbo Talks!” but the announcement that faux-news anchor Stephen Colbert would be performing a New York revival of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical “Company” raised  expectations and eyebrows among those who follow musical theater.  (Of course, since his rendition of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on Jimmy Fallon went viral this week — 400,000 views and counting — it seems like the comedian’s vocal cords are just getting warmed up.)

NYP Company_Photo 2_Chris Lee-1But it wasn’t Colbert alone who made Thursday night's New York Philharmonic Spring Gala at Avery Fisher Hall the hottest ticket in town.  Given the long list of boldface names on stage, the headline of the event could have also been “Joan Harris beds Doogie Howser,” “Jon Cryer gets more stoned than Charlie Sheen,” or countless other odd mash-ups that the stunt casting of “Company” invited.

Then there was the audience — which was arguably more star-studded than the stage itself, with John Lithgow, Woody Allen, Chazz Palminteri, Christine Baranski and Sondheim himself in the house.  At intermission Alec Baldwin was asking aloud, “Who played the original Bobby on Broadway?” and Jesse Eisenberg was graciously holding the door for patrons entering the men’s room.  It was that kind of New York night.

As for the results on stage?  It was one of the most enjoyable early tech rehearsals a theatergoer could imagine.  Even with the multiple botched lyrics, missed lighting cues, mic dropouts (not to mention the $300 top ticket price) and one major moving scenery crash, the energy was high and the faith in the material was strong — and because of that, there will be few refund requests at the N.Y. Phil’s box office for performances this weekend.

Even when the singers were entire measures off, conductor Paul Gemignani — a ubiquitous presence at recent Sondheim events on Broadway, at international opera houses and at Avery Fisher Hall — earned his salary as he managed to vamp, re-orchestrate and keep the evening humming along.  Likewise, the N.Y. Phil was on its game as the orchestra kept the beat to Sondheim’s bossa nova-meets-Broadway score.

NYP Company_Photo 5_Chris Lee While few of the performances showed much nuance (reportedly rehearsals were minimal for some of the stars), a surprising number of them were memorable.  Christina Hendricks played the ditzy Pan-Am-era stewardess with aplomb, Colbert showed great comic timing as a teetering teetotaler (and both made it through their songs cleanly if without much vocal resplendence) and recent Tony-winner Katie Finneran ("Promises, Promises") once again threatened to steal the whole show from her far more famous castmates with a bravura 10-minute scene: a breathless and brittle “Not Getting Married.”

Musically, the first act was rough — save for Finneran and Anika Noni Rose’s assured “Another Hundred People” — but by the second act, the performers were warmed up.  A rousing “Side by Side by Side” — with all the cast dancing together for the first time in choreography right out of a high school production — set the table for what everyone in the audience seemed to be waiting for, the guaranteed showstopper: Patti LuPone (as Joanne) singing the boozy anthem, “Ladies Who Lunch.”  When she ended the third verse with an extended, “Aren’t they a gemmmmm,” it seemed like the first time a high note had been held for more than a beat all night.

LuPone finished the song splashing her martini out over the first few rows of the orchestra and then received the evening’s biggest ovation.  Even the original Joanne, Elaine Stritch, watching from the house (on the aisle, in row PP) gave LuPone a warm hand. 

When it was time for Neil Patrick Harris to belt “Being Alive,” he did so — as he did all night — with more charm than accuracy.  He was more Master of Ceremonies than leading man as Bobby, but he was always believable as the elusive central character.

For all its flaws, this wobbly deluxe version (directed by Lonnie Price) is more intoxicating than other major revivals of late (the inventive, if minimal, John Doyle staging in 2008 and the cartoonish Kennedy Center version in 2002).  The late George Furth’s much maligned book has never seemed funnier thanks to the top-shelf cast and their gifts for improv; yet for all its talent, the cumulative experience of this concert version still doesn’t match the joy of listening to the original cast album featuring Ms. Stritch, Beth Howland’s frazzled Amy and of course, Dean Jones (you’re welcome, Mr. Baldwin) as Bobby.

But as the show makes clear, why choose one when you can have two (or three?) The 1970 record is still accessible on iTunes — and these performances will be too. This four-night run will be filmed (leaning, one hopes, on later performances which will no doubt be more polished), introducing this once envelope-pushing, now audience-friendly classic to a new generation of Bobby Babies.  It’s expected to screen in Los Angeles cinemas in June, and for those who missed the first tour of “Company” that began at the Ahmanson 40 years ago next month (with George Chakiris as Bobby) this might be the only New York production heading west in a generation.  It may not be a perfect “Company,” but it is a fun night out.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?


Sitting down with Stephen Sondheim

-- James C. Taylor in New York

Top: The cast of "Company" included, from left, Craig Bierko, Jill Paice, Jon Cryer, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, Aaron Lazar, Katie Finneran and Anika Noni Rose.

Below: Martha Plimpton and Stephen Colbert.

Bottom: Patti LuPone

Credits: Chris Lee