PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Company — Bobbing for Bobby

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Company — Bobbing for Bobby Raul Esparza, 36, and Company, 36, bowed Nov. 29 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and not a second too soon, it being a show where five married couples throw a surprise 35th birthday party for their collective best pal, Bobby, the bachelor they most adore and envy.
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Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park supplied this current Broadway version. It's a B.Y.O.I. transfer — Bring Your Own Instrument — y'know, one of those shows where Elizabeth Stanley plays April, Oboe, Tuba and Alto Sax, where Robert Cunningham plays Paul, Trumpet and Drums, where Leenya Rideout plays Jenny, Violin, Guitar and Double Bass…

Yes, John Doyle has struck again. The inventive Brit, who just waltzed off with Tony and Drama Desk Awards as 2006's Best Director of a Musical for his one-cast-band version of Sweeney Todd, is back, bullhorn in one hand and metronome in the other.

Stephen Sondheim, who loathes the commotion attending his Broadway openings, this time may have actually escaped the whole ordeal without any photographic proof of him ever having been there. The Phantom of the Musical Theatre slipped into his seat on the aisle in the last row after the show began, bolted for the exit at the first sign of intermission, ducked into a bistro for the duration, returned with the dregs and malingerers for Act Two, then dashed for his limo as Esparza stepped forth to take a bow. And if you think Stephen Sondheim is showing up for an opening-night party at The Copacabana — I mean, it is a Barry Manilow song, right? — then you got another think coming. I think not.

Three of Sondheim's book writers caught Company and were almost as press-shy as the invisible maestro himself. The man of the hour, George Furth, admitted he was very proud of the way Company still played — before he realized he was being interviewed. "I just don't do interviews — that's why I have so many friends," he said with a friendly finality. Pacific Overtures' John Weidman grinned and nodded and kept walking when asked if he was still Bounce-ing (his and Sondheim's endlessly reworked latest). And Sunday in the Park with George's James Lapine just eschewed the press. Even a Lapine-created star, Dirty Blonde Claudia Shear, gave me her usual scurrilous-journalist greeting (in jest, I guess, as she has only been of good report by me). But these things filter down from the top.

I found director Doyle in the cavernous Copa at precisely the same party table where I talked to him after his Sweeney Todd opening. "Déjà vu," even he admitted. "The second time around is harder than the first time. With Sweeney Todd, I didn't know what was going to happen, I didn't know anybody, and it sorta didn't matter. The second time, after the Tony and everything, you think, 'Ooooh! God, this has gotta be good.'" Cobweb-dusting was his primary order of business this time. "The most complicated thing about the show is making sure it's relevant for now. It so always has been seen as a 1970s musical, and I didn't want that to be. I wanted to be relevant and modern and contemporary, about people who are now. That was my priority, and I hope that worked."

Esparza, listed as percussion and Bobby in the program, takes his own sweet time before making his instrument selection. He doesn't make the director an honest man until the big 11 o'clock number, "Being Alive" — and then he only plays (on the piano he has been leaning on all evening) the lead-in, but he wants full credit for that. "I had to learn how to play the piano," the actor confessed heavily like one who has Practiced Practiced Practiced. "I had the kazoo in 'Side by Side by Side.' In Cincinnati I had the cymbals, but he took them away because he said they were cheap. John doesn't believe in cheap."

Vocally, he nightly thrives on "Being Alive," he said. "It's just one of those things you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself when you sing that song. It feels like all those people who used to be part of Broadway coming together — I dunno, like stepping into a river or something." His second favorite moment is a song written for the original show but cut, "Marry Me a Little," and now restored for the first-act curtain. "That's a real gift because every time I sing it I remember hearing it in college."

A volatile performer with a penchant for tearing loose, Esparza plays bachelor Bobby close to the vest, and costumer Ann Hould-Ward keeps the character stylishly buttoned-down in Armani. "She liked the line of it," he said. "She tried on five different suits, all of them gorgeous, and she chose the Armani, and I have to say she was right.

"I wanted very much for the role to be still and to be simple, and I didn't want him to be particularly expressive — someone who is more contained and doesn't really enjoy being touched. It's amazing to go up on stage and just be a regular guy. I think that's the thing about what George and Steve did with this — they put people up on stage that you can recognize. And I think that's really what's sorta groundbreaking about the show — that suddenly there's this musical about us, somehow, in all of our ambivalence."

The children in Company are not seen or heard, but two debuted as opening-night party girls, essentially sleeping through it: Sullivan May Hunter, the three-month-old daughter of associate director Adam John Hunter, and Samantha Kono, the six-weeks-old daughter of Heather Laws, who plays the show's hysterical bride Amy ("Getting Married Today") when not otherwise occupied with the French horn, flute and trumpet.

"I rehearsed the last two weeks of my pregnancy," said Laws. "She was 11 days late so [that] gave me some extra rehearsal time, which was nice." And hubby was helpful (Ben Kono is a saxophonist with Jersey Boys). She didn't have to be told that Veanne Cox was Tony-nominated for her wedding nerves in a previous revival. "I was visiting New York, and I ushered to go and see it — isn't that silly? — and I do remember her. She was terrific."

Lightning could very well strike twice. She already nabbed a CEA award nomination when she broke in the role in Cincinnati, and it's clear she has the acting chops. She did Sally Bowles in Studio 54's Cabaret and covered for both Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland in The Boy From Oz ("My mother! My sister! My daughter!" she giggled).

Also filling some old Tony-nominated shoes —Barbara Barrie's and Charles Kimbrough's from the original Company — are Kristin Huffman and Keith Buterbaugh, who have quite a workout as the karate couple, Sarah and Harry.

It's Huffman's Broadway bow, and she's not alone. "There are eight of us making our Broadway debuts!" she beamed proudly. And she finds a lot of justification in this role for sticking to her guns a long time ago. "I'm glad when I was in college I didn't let them talk me out of being a double major. I was flute and voice, and they wanted me to pick one or the other, and I just couldn't because I loved the flute as well so I'm so excited that I never separated them. I also played volleyball so maybe that helped with the karate, too. We actually had a fight coordinator come in and work with us together, Drew Fracher. John is so loyal. He brought the same person in to work with us in New York."

She heaps praise aplenty on Doyle's sure and subtle style of directing. "John is amazing. I would say most of the scenes are a blend between what we would find and what he would find. He never told us something was good or bad. He kept telling me to do less, do less, and I'm a very frenetic kind of person, and he was right. The more still I was, the better response inside. He's like the dream director where he guides you and you don't even realize it. I call him ‘The Actor Whisperer,' like ‘The Horse Whisperer,' because he can tell you in a very gentle way what he wants done and push you beyond what you thought you could even do. In my opinion, that's a great teacher as well as a great director."

Buterbaugh seconded that emotion. "You can't go wrong with John Doyle. What he pulls out of an actor is just phenomenal." The karate scene is the first sketch out of the chute and is crucial in establishing the tone for the fun to come. "It's a hoot to do, but the pressure is on with that scene because you're basically setting up the entire evening."

He admitted the double harness of actor and musician chafed at the outset. "It was like spinning several plates, but, as time went on, I can't conceive of doing the show any other way now. The trumpet and trombone are so much a part of the character that to part with them seems wrong. It's like not having an arm or leg if you don't have those instruments with you. I was a brass major in undergraduate school so I've been playing many years. I put it down for a while, but you pick it to get the chops warm. It comes right back."

Barbara Walsh, wielding some mean orchestra bells throughout the evening, displays Broadway authority and bravery galore by following Elaine Strich's kind of iconic, Tony-nominated role of the predatory Joanne — a role that includes a song Stritch has whiskey-rasped into her own personal anthem, "The Ladies Who Lunch."

"I just love her to death," Walsh said of this very tough broad she is playing. "I love the company. I love John Doyle's work. It's been a truly collaborative experience, and the role is amazing. It's a very rich role. I'm having a blast. Kind of a big deal for me."

On opening night, she locked her lustful gaze on Bobby and held it for a small eternity before asking him a very direct question, which was greeted with a raucous laugh in the audience. "That horselaugh was a friend of mine, actually. He loved the show. I think he heard the text new and just lost it. It was a great little communal moment. Live theatre." Amy Justman, who plays Susan and the piano (most crucially, relieving Esparza so he can really sing out on his closing number), has been tickling ivories since she was three in Long Island.

Another who betrays a piano proficiency, giving Walsh excellent backup for "The Ladies Who Lunch," is the actor cast as Peter. "Most of the time I make my living as a musical director," said Matt Castle. "Playing the piano is key to what I do for a living. I haven't played bass since college. I've played it for many years in life, but I haven't played it for a long time. I'm thrilled that, of all the shows I might make a Broadway debut in, it is this — in a Sondheim show, in a play with this group of people, in a play where everybody's a principal, in a play that is so beautifully written. In all ways, it's winning."

The possibility of homosexuality as a reason for Bobby's protracted bachelorhood is lightly touched on in a restored scene with Peter. "I don't know the exact history of the scene," admitted Castle. "I think it was written in 1970 and just not included in the first production. I think it would have been more of a red herring. What's interesting about it historically, doing in 2006, is people have been asking for the last 36 years — not asking, people have been insisting that the problem with the play is that Robert really is gay. Is that a comment on the times, on the writers, who knows what? That scene doesn't answer the question positively whether Robert is gay or not, but it does answer it positively that that's not his problem. His problem is in the heart. It's not in the gonads."

Systematically, director Doyle has gone through the show eliminating musical Buttons — and, with them, audience applause. Only three numbers in the first act permit a chance to cheer, and Kelly Jeanne Grant, who is part of the trio socking over "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," gets one of them. She explained the director's reasoning: "He said in a Shakespeare piece no one stands up and applauds a brilliant soliloquy. As brilliant as the soliloquy may be, we're used to seeing plays as a throughline because it's about telling the story. He feels musicals should be the same way in that he follows the story as opposed to applauding certain moments. He threw that out as an idea of why the clapping in some places is eliminated — to not interrupt the flow of the story."

In addition to understudying Esparza and executing a funny pot-dabbling scene, Fred Rose juggles a cello, an alto sax and a tenor sax. "John's rehearsal style makes it a lot more possible than you would think to do all that stuff together," he contended, "because you just do it all together from Day One. Playing the instrument and walking with it and singing just becomes the same as learning your lines. The cello I studied in school and I got a degree in it, and then I didn't play for about 10 years, but I did a production here in town of Cabaret that involved a lot of instrumental playing as well, so that got me to playing the cello again, and I've been playing steadily ever since."

First-nighters included Angela Lansbury (the crown jewel of any opening), David Hyde Pierce, League leader Charlotte St. Martin, Maxwell Caulfield and his deah Juliet Mills, novelist Dominick Dunne (on a three-month leave of absence from Vanity Fair to finish his new novel), Michele Lee (in a stunning white pants suit), Ben Vereen (in a regal African "top hat"), 44x10th proprietor and virginal showbiz investor Scott Hart, publisher Glenn Young, Leslie Kritzer (who will be doing two more nights of Patti LuPone at Les Mouches at Joe's Pub Dec. 8-9 before heading into Legally Blonde — as a brunette), Michael Cerveris (the former Sweeney, the future Kurt Weill in LoveMusik May 3 at the Biltmore), Lee Grant and Thomas Meehan.

Melissa Errico and hubby Patrick McEnroe treated themselves to one of their first nights out since the birth of their Victoria seven months ago. Errico and Esparza have been pals since she was Dot to his George during the Kennedy Center series of Sondheim shows a few years back. In a few weeks (Dec. 11-12 at 7), she will ease back into the performing saddle, making her solo Birdland debut with a show called then & now.

Linda Hart, attending as a guest of her old Hairspray producer Tom Viertel, said she's snagged herself a series on the West Coast, called "The Winner," which will hit the Fox fan as a mid-season replacement in January and February. Already six episodes deep into it, she's loving the work. "I play Rob Corddry's mom — in a very Gracie Allen way," she trilled. "I died and went to Actor Heaven. You work four and a half days a week. You make more money in one day than you do all year here. A friend of mine called me the other day and said, 'Linda, you've done nine pilots, none of which made the air. You must be so elated that this is going to be on television.' And I said, ‘You know what? I'm still back at the guard gate saying, 'Good morning, I'm Miss Hart.'"

Angel Desai, who "long ago gave up hope of ever playing the violin in public," inherited Pamela Myers' Tony-nominated role of Bobby's free-spirited sprite girlfriend Marta — and the powerhouse showstopper that goes with it ("Another Hundred People").

Of the dozen new faces introduced in this Company (eight cast members and four understudies), she had the strongest reaction to making her Broadway debut: "It's not quite real because it's way too fabulous. It's my dream come true so, to say that and to have it realized is much more surreal than you might realize. I don't say that facetiously. It is an actual dream of mine, and it happened. I feel — blessed doesn't really cover it."

The cast of <i>Company</i> takes its opening night bows.
The cast of Company takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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