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Thank God it's not 'Friday': Stephen Colbert sings Sondheim, side by side with Neil Patrick Harris

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NYP Company
Chris Lee

The stars turned out in force last night for the first performance of New York Philharmonic’s four-nights-only production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. There was Alec Baldwin, calling out to a pal in the lobby. And there was Broadway vet Elaine Stritch, looking striking in a hat. And oh, look, it’s Michael Kors in a somewhat wrinkly raincoat. And they were just in the audience. On stage, there was a glittery lineup of Broadway pros (Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Anika Noni Rose) and stage newbies (Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer) in a souped-up concert version of Sondheim’s 1970 musical.

Sondheim’s decidedly ’70s-sounding score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick), given a rich fullness by the Philharmonic under the baton of Paul Gemignani, has never sounded better. But the instrumentals occasionally overpowered the vocals, particularly in the ensemble numbers. Perhaps that’s just as well, because it was the group performances that were the weakest element of the show — perhaps because of the very limited time all the stars had to rehearse together.

The soloists, however, were the standouts. Harris, as the perpetual bachelor Bobby, is a natural, with a charming comic sensibility and a strong stage voice that packs both strength and feeling. (Even when he dropped a cane during a soft-shoe routine during “Side by Side by Side,” he had the good grace to just move on.) Two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran, as the reluctant bride Amy, delivers another scene-stealing turn in the breathless patter song “Getting Married Today.” And LuPone, as one might expect, brings down the cavernous house at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, with her spot-on timing and her second-act showstopper, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” (Warning to patrons in the first two rows: You might want to borrow Kors’ slicker when she sings out her final toast.)

The rest of the cast is, well, frankly a bit uneven. (Here’s where the limited rehearsal time becomes an issue.) Of the musical theater novices, Colbert probably acquits himself the best. Sondheim is a challenging step up from the works of Rebecca Black (“Friday”), but the comic has a decent suburban church-choir sort of voice. He also proves himself more than game in the surprisingly physical comedy bits with his karate-practicing stage wife, Martha Plimpton. At one point, the red-sweatered Comedy Central star even finds himself carrying both Plimpton and Harris in a move worthy of a Chinese acrobat.

As directed by Lonny Price, this Company comes off with far more polish than one might have expected under the circumstances. In the end, it’s hard to escape the exuberance of Sondheim’s melodies or, as Harris sings in the finale, to resist the joy of “Being Alive.”