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It’s a welcome return of ‘Company’ to Broadway — with another Sondheim memory to savor

Director Marianne Elliott switches the genders of the musical’s characters in this fine revival

Patti LuPone, left, as Joanne and Katrina Lenk as Bobbie in “Company.” (Matthew Murphy)

NEW YORK — The highs are so high in director Marianne Elliott’s gender-reversed “Company” that a Sondheim freak like me can live with aspects that don’t quite hit those lofty heights. We’ll get to those, but first, let’s dwell for a spell on the joys of a Broadway revival that had its official opening Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre — pleasures that make this production a moving, and deeply funny, living memorial to the late Stephen Sondheim.

Elliott has not only turned upside down the sexual politics of this Tony-winning 1970 show, she’s also skillfully refined and updated George Furth’s book to the 2020s. Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 at age 91, had revised many of his lyrics to suit Elliott’s intriguing construct, which started with a London production. The critical switch is in making Bobby, an unmarried man turning 35, into Bobbie, an unmarried woman turning 35.

The thrust of the musical remains exactly the same, as Bobbie’s gaggle of “crazy married people” friends teach her that, as the song says, “alone is alone, not alive.” Furth’s vignettes of married life in the big city, though, were badly in need of an overhaul; they had more in common with such canned-laughter sitcoms as “Love, American Style” than, say, the keen analytical portraiture of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”

There will never be another Sondheim

Through Elliott’s edits and tweaks, allowing Bobbie to be played now by Katrina Lenk (“The Band’s Visit”), the match with Sondheim’s sophisticated songs feels more complete. Crucially, for instance, the role of the ditsy flight attendant bedded by Bobbie shifts from female to male; the scene of their one-night stand, leading to the mind-game song “Barcelona,” is no longer a hoary display of denigration. As portrayed with savage acuity by Claybourne Elder, the airline worker is still hilariously empty-headed, but doesn’t come across as so crudely caricatured.

The amusements are amped up consistently, courtesy of inspired comic actors, among them, Jennifer Simard, Christopher Fitzgerald, Christopher Sieber and Matt Doyle. As a result, this is easily the funniest “Company” I’ve ever seen. (#Humblebrag: I saw the original Broadway version.) And at the apex of the glee is the priceless Doyle, in the role of Jamie — heretofore Amy — who sings the greatest show-tune tongue-twister of all time, “Getting Married Today.”

Tributes pour in for Stephen Sondheim

Paul (a tenderly effective Etai Benson) remains the name of the fiancee over whom Jamie gets an operatic magnitude of cold feet. Thusly does “Getting Married Today” serve the uproarious function of revealing that legalized nuptials confer on gay couples all the anxieties previously reserved for their straight friends. And Doyle’s rendition — in an Architectural Digest kitchen — is a fever-pitched marvel. Simard and Sieber make for exquisite combatants in the scene that introduces “The Little Things You Do Together,” and Fitzgerald, coupled with the vibrant Nikki Renée Daniels, gets stoned on a stoop in the most adorable way.

Elliott’s staging ideally supports the compartmentalized (apartmentalized?) picture of New York domestic life that Furth, Sondheim and legendary director Harold Prince were after. Bunny Christie’s sets are modular, taking place in neon cubes that move in and out, up and down; they pay affectionate tribute to the 1970 designs of Boris Aronson that provided Broadway audiences a geometrically kinetic vision of a New York of cold steel and elevators.

The tales of romantic partnership that unfold in Christie’s urban cubby holes don’t knit together in any cohesive way — they come across as no more fully integrated than the personality of the show’s main character. Bobbie (or historically, Bobby) is such a blurry mass of ambivalences and contradictions that the figure is forever an enigma. It’s also forever the show’s weakness. “Will any person ever get the ‘juice’ of you?” sing the suitors — now male — who pop out of co-op front doors to sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” (Elder forms a delightful trio for the Andrews Sisters-style number with Manu Narayan and Bobby Conte.)

Which brings us to Lenk, who plays Bobbie as appealingly elegant and breakable, but in this production you never believe that “available Bobbie” is best friend/confidante/babysitter for all these couples. The text suggests Bobbie is a pleaser, but Lenk seems eternally aloof — a quality that made her an unqualified success as the brittle but needy Dina in “The Band’s Visit,” but is less successful here. She has a sweet but not a powerful voice, and that also presents difficulties when she has to deliver the evening’s powerhouse finale, “Being Alive.”

Power is not a problem for the show’s other above-the-title performer, Patti LuPone, who plays Joanne, the jaundiced Upper East Side socialite who gets to sing the thrilling anthem of seen-it-all cynicism, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” LuPone has the pipes for certain, but too brims with health to convey a sense of too many nights of too many vodka stingers. A friend of mine, remarking on Elaine Stritch’s performance in the original production, said that Stritch seemed to be “made of alcohol.” That distinction sounded right to me for what’s missing in LuPone’s version.

These aren’t nullifying dissents by any means, not when the production itself keeps Sondheim’s flame so imaginatively alive. The assets include Liam Steel’s revelatory choreography, turning a number like “Side by Side by Side” into a smashing game of musical chairs, or using giant lighted letters of the show’s title as dynamic props augmenting Conte’s crackerjack delivery of “Another Hundred People.”

Watching “Company” being revived with such panache, I felt Sondheim’s enduring presence — and my heart in my throat. “Not gone,” I kept thinking. “Not gone.”

Company, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Choreography, Liam Steel; music direction, Joel Fram; sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; illusions, Chris Fisher. With Terence Archie, Rashidra Scott, Greg Hildreth. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.

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