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In comes ‘Company’: Stephen Sondheim feted at show’s first Broadway performance

The much-anticipated Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company” was in good company at its festive first performance Monday night. A ripple of murmurs and an ecstatic standing ovation greeted the show’s 91-year-old lyricist-composer as he emerged from a side entrance at the front of the auditorium shortly before showtime, walking haltingly along the fifth row to his seat on the aisle.

Sondheim waved to the crowd and momentarily pulled down his mask to reveal his characteristic half-formed smile.

Heightening the celebratory mood, the cast assembled onstage to welcome the audience, enabling Patti LuPone, the show’s featured star, to step forward and say: “Stephen, the cast of ‘Company’ dedicates this performance to you.” Midsentence, her voice cracked with emotion.

Frail and unsteady, Sondheim had walked to his seat with companions ready to catch him when he wobbled. In January 2020, he fell at his Connecticut home and tore a ligament, preventing travel to London for the opening of a West End theater renamed for him.

To mark his 90th birthday last March 22, the world had lined up revivals of his shows that were then postponed or canceled in the COVID-19 shutdown, including L.A. presentations of “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Passion,” “Assassins” and “Sweeney Todd.”

The Broadway revival of “Company,” an import from London, was in previews when the pandemic shut it — and all theatrical performances — in mid-March 2020.

The show’s director, Marianne Elliott, acknowledged this in a brief speech welcoming the audience. “It is truly incredible to be back here at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after 631 days,” she said from the stage. The cast and crew had had to disperse “without even saying goodbye,” she said. Through the next months, everyone kept in touch, “emailing, texting, crying.”

But here they were, back in front of a sold-out audience, ready to perform a show “that is the antithesis of isolation, loneliness and fear.”

Monday’s performance launched nearly a month of previews ahead of the show’s official opening Dec. 9.

Led by Katrina Lenk, a lead actress Tony Award-winner for “The Band’s Visit” (which arrives in Los Angeles with a touring cast on Nov. 30), “Company” focuses on an unmarried, commitment-shy person crowded on all sides by married friends. In its original form, the story — written by George Furth and first performed on Broadway in 1970 — centers on a man, Bobby. In Elliott’s reconceived version, the character is Bobbie, with several other roles also gender-reversed.

Elliott’s version was joyously received in London in 2018 and has had Sondheim’s fans at home eager to see it ever since. Elliott holds a clutch of Tonys for “Angels in America,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “War Horse.”

Monday’s performance was repeatedly flecked with ovations: after Matt Doyle’s gender-reversed “Getting Married Today,” in which his neurotic groom, experiencing last-minute jitters, rapidly ticks off all the reasons he shouldn’t marry his male partner; after LuPone’s martini-dry delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” an older friend’s drunken reproach of Bobbie and herself for becoming ossified in aloof self-sufficiency; and after Lenk’s concluding number “Being Alive,” in which Bobbie, still half-heartedly, opens herself to the possibility of a lasting relationship.

Before and after the performance, Sondheim fans in the audience stood about ranking the various “Company” revivals and describing their journeys to London for the 2018 staging. As the crowd spilled onto a closed West 45th Street afterward, audience members were handed colorful mylar balloons — which accompanied the party hats they’d been given beforehand — to celebrate the Bobbie character’s 35th birthday, the biologically ticking event that sets the story in motion.

“Company” wasn’t the only reunion, of sorts, on the block Monday night. Across the street at the Imperial Theatre, the original cast of “Spring Awakening” — including Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr. — reassembled for a 15th anniversary concert benefiting the Actors Fund.

Despite the interruption of last year’s birthday activities, Sondheim’s work is driving this year’s holiday cultural season. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of “West Side Story” — the 1957 musical for which Sondheim wrote lyrics — opens Dec. 10, the day after “Company’s” official opening. One of New York’s hottest tickets is a Classic Stage Company revival of “Assassins” with Tavi Gevinson, Steven Pasquale, Judy Kuhn, Ethan Slater and Will Swenson in the cast. In L.A., East West Players has announced that its COVID-delayed production of “Assassins” will open in February.

And Sondheim revealed during a September appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that he is at work on a new musical, “Square One,” with playwright David Ives. Nathan Lane, in a separate talk show appearance, said that he and Bernadette Peters had participated in a reading of the show.

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