"Company" at the NY Philharmonic

04/09/2011 06:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2011

Forty years on Stephen Sondheim's 1970 "Company" remains a landmark in the history of the American musical. This weekend the New York Philharmonic is presenting concert performances of "Company" with an all-star cast headed by Neil Patrick Harris.

The first of Sondheim's collaborations with producer/director Harold Prince, "Company" suggested that the musical need not remain in the framework of conventional narrative. I shudder to use a phrase I have happily not heard in many years -- concept musical -- but "Company" demonstrated that you could construct a musical from something other than plot. Whether this is a good thing or not remains a question.

One might say the theme that unites the disparate scenes in George Furth's book for the show is a fear of intimacy. The central character, Robert (Harris) has a group of married friends all of whom want him to find him someone to settle down with. Robert looks at their generally dystunctional marriages and sees no reason to join their company.

In this version Sondheim has allowed the inclusion of a brief scene suggesting that Robert may be bisexual but ultimately the issue is not his sexual orientation but his desire to commit himself to another person, especially given the frustrations he observes in his "happily married" friends.

"Company" began as a series of unrelated one-acts by George Furth. It was Prince who suggested they could be united in a musical. Ever since I first saw it, toward the end of its initial Broadway run, I have found these playlets unconvincing -- sometimes sharply funny, but seldom deeper than a one-liner New Yorker cartoon.

Sondheim's musical numbers have considerably more depth. In structure and harmony, they broke free of the conventional forms of Broadway numbers, though some of them are pastiche. They retain their vitality in any production.

It would be nice to report that the star power in this cast of "Company" gives the show a new strength. It has been reported in the press that the cast did not have a full run through together until the final dress. Even without that knowledge it is clear that there is not a lot of "relating" going on between the characters. Yes, in a way, that's the theme of the show, but here the effect is just to distance us from the already distancing action.

Certain scenes work very well. Katie Finneran is delicious as the reluctant bride Amy both in the song "Not Getting Married" and in Furth's best dialogue. Christina Hendricks is perfect as the dizzy stewardess in "Barcelona." You will be happy to know that the brilliant comedian Stephen Colbert acquits himself well as one of the unhappy husbands.

Patti LuPone, as you might expect, has the requisite brass in all her bitchy dialogue and "The Ladies Who Lunch."

As for Harris, he conveys Robert's loneliness well, he sings with tremendous fervor in the final song, "Being Alive," but he still projects a kind of boyishness and lack of worldly experience that makes the concern of all his friends seem unnecessary. If he's still essentially a kid, why should he worry about settling down? In a sense he's a more contemporary Robert since the whole notion of "settling down" has become passe.

The orchestra, under Paul Gemigniani, sounds great in Jonathan Tunick's sharp, edgy orchestrations. The tempi sometimes seemed a little slow but perhaps that's because the performers had not yet gotten entirely comfortable with the tricky words and music. Maybe by the final performance, Saturday, things will be smoother.

Lonny Price has staged the show a little busily. There is a lot of moving of sofas, which seems unnecessary and distracting. Josh Rhodes has staged "Side by Side by Side" with just the right amount of splashiness.

In 1970 there was a feeling of electricity about "Company," a sense of something new and truly contemporary. Obviously familiarity with the score has diminished some of that. But last night the voltage wasn't there. I hope by the two performances on Saturday that will be fixed.