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(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
132 min. PBS. Cast: Raul Esparza.

/content/films/3076/2.jpgAfter two previous Broadway runs (in 1970 and 1995), Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical comedy Company was ready for something a little different in 2006. Emboldened by the critical and commercial success of his stripped-down Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, director John Doyle applied the same basic concept to Company: forgo the orchestra and put the instruments in the hands of the actors.

The undisputed star of the 2006 Company is two-time Tony nominee Raúl Esparza in the role of Bobby. A single man reticent—even as he turns 30—to leave his comfort zone, Bobby is feeling increasingly hemmed in by his circle of married friends. In a series of scenes casting Bobby as third-wheel "company" in the homes of his "good and crazy" friends, they mother and smother him with love and judgment. There's the comfortably worn-in couple of Harry and Sarah (Keith Buterbaugh and Kristin Huffman), the happily divorcing Peter and Susan (Matt Castle and Amy Justman), contented young marrieds Jenny and David (Leenya Rideout and Fred Rose), the about-to-marry Amy and Paul (Heather Laws and Robert Cunningham) and the older couple of Larry and Joanne (Bruce Sabath and Barbara Walsh), the latter on her third husband.

Bobby sizes up each couple with a mix of affection, apprehension, and admiration. We see his dating life at its most casual, but also as it is affected by Bobby's increasing consideration of long-term commitment. Will the eternal boy grow up and settle down with one of his stable of girlfriends? Flight attendant April (Elizabeth Stanley) is a sweetheart, but a bit dim. Perhaps it's not to late for old flame Kathy (Kelly Jeanne Grant). And the smart and sassy Marta (Angel Desai) wouldn't let Bobby get away with anything—perhaps just what he needs.

Accompanied by a cleverly compact book by George Furth, Sondheim's music and lyrics fire on all cylinders. The choral complexity of Company brilliantly sets the stage for Bobby's emotional claustrophobia, and from there, it's one nugget of musical genius after another. Particular standouts: the Andrews Sisters-styled "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" (April, Kathy, Marta)—this time a sax trio— the Bobby ballad "Someone is Waiting," Amy's showstopping musical meltdown "Getting Married Today," the peppy "Side by Side by Side" (Bobby and the couples, here taking on a marching-band aspect), and Joanne's bourbon-soaked "The Ladies Who Lunch," a devastating social self-critique. As good as Walsh is as Joanne, she's inevitably overshadowed by the towering originator of the role: Elaine Stritch.

The grandly stylized Sweeney Todd was a more comfortable fit for Doyle's avant-garde deconstruction, but this alternative approach to the now-classic material of Company has its winning qualities. The simpler, more intimate staging makes Bobby's psyche loom larger, and the musical-performance element makes "Being Alive" even more of a secret weapon when it's detonated at the end of Act II (prior to this stint at the piano, single Bobby only rather pathetically toots a kazoo amongst his married company).

The performances in Doyle's deconstructed version can sometimes come off as cold or canned (an impression worsened by the use of mics), but the cast is strong all around. Esparza's performance is daringly of-a-piece with the revival's concept: his determined deadpan occasionally goes so far into underplaying that it seems an anti-performance (literalizing the girlfriends' lyric "You impersonate a person better/Than a zombie should").But it's all part of a strategy to give the show closer "Being Alive" an even bigger emotional wallop as Bobby comes to terms with his feelings.

Sondheim vet Lonny Price does a bang-up job shooting the show for television—first aired on PBS' American Playhouse and then sent to video—capturing the show as it is with a rewarding intimacy and a lack of intrusive directorial or editing flourishes. Harold Prince's original staging remains the gold standard, but John Doyle offers an intriguing alternative on Sondheim's ode to commitment anxiety.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM 2.

Street date: 5/20/2008

Distributor: Image Entertainment

Company looks and sounds magnificent on Blu-Ray—the image is crisp and the music comes through in its fullness. (Unfortunately, the disc lacks any kind of captioning for the hard-of-hearing, which should be a no-brainer for all titles at this late date.) As for special features, they may be few, but they're positively terrific. In anamorphic standard definition, we get "An Audience with Stephen Sondheim" (38:59), an onstage interview recorded July 6, 2007 (on the occasion of the opening of Company at Australia's national musical theatre company Kookaburra). Though it's a wide-ranging, highly enjoyable chat, one can only wish it was even longer, especially since Company is hardly discussed. More to the point are "Video Interview with Raúl Esparza" (15:29) and "Video Interview with John Doyle" (9:21), both in anamorphic standard def. The impressively hyper-articulate Esparza discusses the character of Bobby, the concept of the production, his work with the piano, performing Sondheim and working with Sondheim, while Doyle discusses the development of his style and a bit about Sondheim's reaction to it. All around, this is a disc that will delight Sondheim fans and enlighten newcomers to his work.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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