November 27, 2012

It works both ways, of course. Last week I wrote about a disc that surprised me by being so much better than I had expected. (Ghostlight’s original cast recording of the musical Calvin Berger.) This week it is a disc that surprised me by being less enjoyable than I had every reason to expect it to be.

As a Sondheim fan with a very soft spot for concert presentations of his musicals by the New York Philharmonic, I put on the Blu-ray disc of the 2011 concert staging of Company, pushed “play” and sat back with great anticipation. I hoped for something akin to the New York Philharmonic’s concert performance of Follies back in 1985 which blew me away multiple times. Instead, by the end of the 145 minutes, I felt let down.

True, what I saw and heard included some very high highlights, and of course, a selection of terrific songs set in a comic/serious book. Together, the scenes and songs added up as the show progresses and built to an impressive climax.

However too many times I was pulled out of the enjoyment by notes not quite hit, voices that didn’t quite blend, orchestral passages that weren’t captured in the audio mix and a hyper-active video plan that failed to respect the physical layout of director Lonnie Price’s blocking or Josh Rhodes’ choreography.

The disc is of the New York Philharmonic’s one-weekend run (four performances) of the musical that shook up Broadway in 1970 with its plotless but heavily themed book by George Furth, high-gloss score of songs by Stephen Sondheim and the driving concept of director Hal Prince.

Company is not so much a story as a collection of impressionistic scenes that add up to a portrait of a human institution – marriage – in the contemporary world.

As it did some 42 years ago, the book offers an assembly of sketches/episodes/bits designed to communicate various views of marriage in urbane and urban society of the time. The songs carried much of the message while giving flesh and blood to the characters in a way that would have been difficult to accomplish in the prose of the play. There are twelve distinctly different personalities to come to know in slightly more than two hours of playing time and the use of song to give voice to each works marvelously.

Hal Prince’s concept all but defined the “concept musical” movement of the last third of the twentieth century and the entire project bore his distinctive stamp. Today, with Lonnie Price applying his own staging in a concert setting, the “concept” conceit of Prince remains a strong center around which all the elements orbit.

Price gathered a thoroughly intriguing cast for the concert. Neil Patrick Harris certainly has the charm to be a captivating “Bobby,” the central character whose 35th birthday is the stimulus for all of his friends gathering around him. However, Harris’ voice isn’t strong enough to carry off “Marry Me a Little,” let alone the big emotional heights of “Being Alive.” For that song he uses his acting skills to sell the number. For much of the show, the camera is focused on him immediately after any of the other cast members land a laugh line or make a potent observation. This is to capture his character’s “reaction,” but that is often simply the holding of a pose while the moment sinks in. As a result, his performance seems more a series of poses than an animated characterization.

The most impressive supporting performance of the evening comes from Patti LuPone as the acerbic Joanne whose evening-topping “Ladies Who Lunch” is delivered with delectable precision. Among the men, Jim Walton and Craig Bierko deliver the most polished performances while Katie Finneran ads another stellar credit to her bio after her drop-dead fabulous single scene show stopper in Promises Promises for which she won the Tony Award in 2010. Here she delivers the devilishly difficult tongue twister “Getting Married Today” with attention not just to the consonants and syllables but the meaning of the lyric – no mean trick!

The comedy side of the show is well served by Jon Cryer who teams with Jennifer Laura Thompson as the couple Bobby joins for an evening smoking pot, and Christina Hendricks as the stewardess he beds for one night only to have her agree not to fly off to “Barcelona” in the morning.

When not focused on Harris, the screen is often showing a brief moment in a succession of quick cuts while the cast either shuffles back and forth or pushes five couches that serve as set pieces around the stage. Price is credited for both stage and screen direction so he must take responsibility for the fact that we rarely see a wide shot that lets us place the events in geographic relationship on the stage. The opening sequence is probably the greatest offender in this, and by the time it is over it is really too late to make up for the visual confusion.

In his notes for the booklet that accompanies the disc, Price (with Kitt Lavoie who was the script supervisor for the project) describes the rehearsal process for the very busy big name cast members and the tightly constrained time frame. He (they) reveal that “The day we opened was the first time that all of the cast was in the same place at the same time.” That explains why there are times that you wish the cast seemed more in synch, more disciplined, more polished, more of a team.

The notes also say that the schedule of the New York Philharmonic’s Avery Fisher Hall was so confining that they only had 8 hours of tech time. It shows. The lighting may have been good for the audience in the hall, but it is dark and obscuring on the small screen, and the sound board operator needed a good deal more time to find the right mixes for the various combinations. The orchestra, which one would expect to be a star of the evening, is often obscured and many of the details of the great orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick go unheard. The best audio comes when there is no singing in the tremendous dance arrangement of David Shire for “Tick Tock,” the dance number where Chryssie Whitehead tears up the stage as another of Bobby’s girlfriends.

Perhaps all these carping criticisms would be much ado about nothing if the video was some sort of bootleg capturing a live performance that would otherwise have disappeared into the oblivion of the passage of time. However, this show was staged with the idea of selling tickets to the video screening live in hundreds of theaters across the country (and, I suppose, around the world.)

The fact is that more paying customers saw the show in high definition on the screen of their local cinema than in the concert hall live in New York. This Blu-ray or DVD (it is available in both formats) is what was shown on those screens in 2011. It should have been done better.

New York Philharmonic Concert Presentation
Image Entertainment
145 Minutes
Blu-ray $29.95 ASIN: B008SBXFXM

Company – 
New York Philharmonic Concert Presentation