Antonio Banderas' Company: Review
Antonio Banderas’ Spanish-language production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company is as intelligent and as nuanced as it is bright, bold and brassy. A cast of Spain’s finest musical-theatre talents (on and off stage), an orchestra to rival (surpass, even) anything you’ll hear on Broadway, a seemingly bottomless budget and of course a Hollywood-calibre leading man is as close to a sure-thing guarantee that you’ll ever get in musical theatre, and, ¡vaya!, does it deliver!
As a committed Sondheimite – and Chair of The Stephen Sondheim Society – I’ve seen this show many times. And when asked, I’ve always said that, for me, nothing has surpassed Sam Mendes’ production at the Donmar with Adrian Lester. Yes, I adored Marianne Elliott’s more recent gender-flipped production (and am desperate to get over to NYC to see it again) but Mendes and his team captured something magical in that 1995 version (it also boasted the unparalleled Sheila Gish, whose caustic “Everybody riiiiise!!” is always worthy of a chef’s kiss!)
Elliott’s production managed to instil in me the fear that Company might be something of a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur… a relic…” to quote Judi Dench’s M in her attack on the “boyish charms” of James Bond in GoldenEye. That, somehow, it just didn’t work anymore and needed an overhaul in the disturbing light of the MeToo movement. And who pesters men into being married these days?!
But I’m pleased to say that Banderas – star, director and producer – has dispelled this notion, with a production that acknowledges the ridiculousness of a 1970s bachelor lifestyle yet still allows you to sympathise with his situation. An Old Spice odour of toxic masculinity now infuses “Have I Got a Girl for You”, as Bobby is reluctantly hoisted into the air by his male friends, the same ones who – much to his embarrassment – wheel his bed centrestage for his scene with April the air hostess.
Banderas neatly reframes the action of his Company into a series of flashbacks or dreams/nightmares across his life, which also helps account for him not being 35 any more. The show, revolution that it was in the 1970s, never did have a traditional narrative arc, even though the main character does go on a journey that sees him end the show as a new man. But here, Banderas is explicitly summoning these memories – proactively, with a snap of the fingers – to formulate a way ahead, or to find a “coherent existence”, as the lawyer Egerman demands in A Little Night Music.
This recollection of old and perhaps false and unreliable memories allows Banderas to create a fantasy. The cast remain on stage for much of the show, trapped in a synaptic limbo, watching and reacting to the memories as they unfold. It has a touch of Assassins about it, mixing together characters across history and messing with chronology.
As for the performances, the revelation for me is that Banderas can sing. He’s got a powerful voice, too, almost operatic, and crucially the ability to keep it in check. (He would make for a terrifying Sweeney Todd, I bet!) I sat there aghast as he powered through whichever word in Ignacio Garcia May’s translation replaces “about” at the end of Bobby's first solo (“that’s what it’s really about, really about”) in the glorious opening number, “Company”. This contrasts with his delicate, wispy high (and optional) A# on “waiiiiit” at the end of “Someone is Waiting”.
And the audience were applauding even before he could finish “Being Alive”. It’s performed here by a Bobby who’s inebriated after his night out with Joanne and Harry, so played as a moment of tipsy self-discovery, the uptight bachelor finally cutting loose thanks to two cognacs too many. Banderas plays drunk very well, and the result is a wonderful, uplifting close to the show. From the whoops of “wapo malagueño” from the appreciative home audience (Banderas is a local boy), I wouldn’t’ve been surprised to see a pair or two of Spanish knickers flying in his direction!
We’re not treated to “Marry Me a Little” at the close of act one, which was a surprise and a pity. But “Tick-Tock” – a last-minute addition to the show in its original Boston try-out – does make its way into the second act. It’s an explosion of perms and knee-high boots that has Bobby tossing and turning all night after his liaison with April, and it allows choreographer Borja Rueda to show off his skills.
The only movement issue I had was in the call-and-response sequence of “Side by Side by Side”. It’s a cringeworthy moment in the show when the couples take it in turns to dance (often tap) in sequence, first husband then wife or vice versa, such that when it’s Bobby’s turn, he has no one to respond to this call. It has the potential to be a heart-wrenching moment but here I felt it didn’t quite hit the mark, despite Bobby’s best efforts to style it out.
Banderas has surrounded himself with what is surely the cream of Spanish musical theatre. There’s no faulting any performance, and each of the cast gives everything they’ve got to their roles:
The show is divided into short vignettes featuring Bobby’s interaction with his married friends. First up is Harry (Carlos Seguí) and Sarah (the hilarious Dulcinea Juárez), who deliver a masterclass in comedy with their karate (or is it Lucha Libre!?) tussle while the caustic Joanne (the perfectly cast Marta Ribera) explains wryly how a successful marriage hinges on “The Little Things You Do Together”. For added comic effect, Banderas stages the fight in slow motion – very cinematic and very funny.
From the ridiculous to sublime, this uproarius scene is followed by Seguí’s honey-smooth “Sorry-Grateful” – the encapsulation of the entire show in a single song. It oozes from him, seemingly effortlessly, and the same can easily be said of the rest of guys who join in this musicalised piece of cognitive dissonance.
A couple of non-musical flashbacks follow, with Peter and Susan (Albert Bolea and Silvia Luchetti) and then David and Jenny (Rubén Yuste and Julia Möller) revealing aspects of their marriages that clearly weigh heavily on Robert’s mind. With his brain addled by David’s marijuana, Robert experiences a trippy musical dream or flashback in the style of the Andrews Sisters. “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” introduces – and shows off the impressive talents of – the girlfriends, Kathy (Lorena Calero), Marta (Lydia Fairén) and April (María Adamuz). All three give sparkling performances, and return later in Act 2 for the “Tick Tock” sequence, which allows these triple-threats to show off their dancing. Fairen’s solo, “Another Hundred People”, also flows beautifully and is effectively staged.
Paul (Roger Berruezo, who also has the daunting task of covering for Banderas, which he’s not yet had to do) and Larry (Paco Morales) join the rest of the guys for the locker-room “Have I Got a Girl For You”, before Banderas takes centrestage for a very effective “Someone is Waiting”, another song that neatly encapsulates the schism in Bobby’s mind. With no “Marry Me a Little”, it gives Banderas a strong stand-out solo for the first act. Larry Kert, who replaced Dean Jones as the original Broadway Bobby, described this song as the most difficult he ever had to sing, but Banderas delivers it without a hitch.
Possibly the biggest cheer of the night is reserved for Anna Moliner’s Amy, whose “Getting Married Today” seems even more of a tongue-twisting mouthful in Spanish. Her breaking-taking breath control is all the more impressive given the degree to which she throws herself around the stage and stalls.
Finally, Joanne (Ribera) out-Minellis Liza in her full-bodied and Fortuna-ravaged “Ladies Who Lunch”, carrying on with the cries of “rise!” as the applause dies down. Again, a seemingly effortless performance from one of Spain's most revered actresses.
Supporting these performances is a 26-piece orchestra, under the direction of MD Arturo Díez-Boscovich. It sounds sensational, and I got the spine-tingling feeling that I was hearing Jonathan Tunick’s funky rock-infused orchestrations for the first time. If your only dalliance with this show is the recording of the (admittedly Tony-winning) Raul Esparza actor-muso version, you will be blown away by the orchestral might of this version. And while David Cullens did a great job orchestrating for the recent West End revival with Rosalie Craig, nothing beats hearing the show how Tunick and Sondheim more or less wanted it to be heard. A cast recording wouldn’t go amiss!
The sound balance and clarity is also noteworthy, given the forces at play. Every single word is crystal clear, even with the brass going red in the face on their fire escapes. This is a very well equipped theatre, and no expsense has been spared in the technical execution.
In a delightful piece of staging, the orchestra is positioned in the wings, each player seated in the windows of their Manhattan apartments. Until, that is, the (top-notch) trumpets step out on to the fire escape for a jam session. Díez-Boscovich even pops out on to his balcony for a bit of al fresco conducting, only to have his baton purloined by Banderas in order to lead “Side by Side” at his own breakneck pace. Nice.
Like Duke Ellington's 1940 “Harlem Air Shaft”, this conceit combines the myriad sounds and music heard in a Manhattan block. New York should be a character in Company (though admittedly more likely south of 110th Street) and everything in this production – even the positioning of the musicians – oozes The Big Apple. Scenic designer Alejandro Andujar’s stage is dominated by the city’s iconic skyline, which extends down into the auditorium and up into the circle, and is also reflected in a mirrored ceiling. It’s an effective backdrop but even more so when magically brought to life through a combination of video projections and lighting. And while I’ve always held that projection in theatre is more often than not a lazy (or budgetary) shortcut, here the combination of Andujar’s physical set, Joan Rodón and Emilio Valenzuela’s video artistry and the gorgeous lighting design by Juan Gómez-Cornejo and Carlos Torrijos results in a very effective visual harmony.
Every aspect of the Soho Theatre's Company is kaleidoscopic, constantly throbbing and pulsing to that infamous dial tone. For me, it perfectly captures the spirit of the original show but gives it a contemporary edge. It’s helped by a genuine leading man that you sympathise with and are compelled to root for; one criticism of the book is that it can be difficult to care about Bobby, but Banderas is very likeable. But it’s a lot more than merely an indulgent star vehicle. It’s just a very, very good production with a faultless cast. Sadly, Sondheim never got the chance to make it over to Malaga but I suspect he would’ve adored this production.
Teatro Soho CaixaBank
Until 27 March 2022