Little Theatre of Norfolk opens their 88th Season with a production of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical “Company.” The musical is enigmatic and complex. The production is professional and competent; often, even excellent. So why is it so unsatisfying?
“Company” is a celebrated, but seldom produced, experimental musical from the mind of beloved composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Although he hasn’t written a truly great show in twenty years, Sondheim was the enfant terrible of the musical theater in the 1970s and 80s. With each new show he redefined what musicals could say, and what subjects they could explore. Every show he wrote was a radical departure in form and content from everything that had come before it. No subject matter seemed off limits. While his “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” remain perennial audience favorites, theater aficionados and academics appreciate Sondheim as what he is: the most influential experimental playwright of the Twentieth Century.
“Company,” which premiered in 1970, was the first of these experimental musicals. It is set in Manhattan and focuses on Bobby (Tony Brach), an affable, handsome bachelor in his mid-thirties. All of his neighbors are married couples. The couples pressure him to get married. He’s seeing three different women. The women pressure him to get married. Bobby is open to the idea of marriage, but he’s a commitment-phobe, always on the outside looking in. The musical doesn’t have a plot; not in the conventional sense, anyway. Bobby’s “should I or shouldn’t I?” internal conflict is the dramatic tension that drives the evening, which is largely a series of vignettes, sketches, and musical numbers in which Bobby’s friendship with these couples allows him to observe the sweet and sour of matrimonial intimacy. The whole show takes place in one metaphysical second before he blows out his birthday candles. It is both modernistic and surrealistic. It’s tricky material; extremely hard to do well. LTN’s production, directed by James Bryan, largely succeeds, but lacks the center of gravity that would anchor it in the realm of the profound, rather than the meandering.
The cast of “Company” | Photos by David Polston
To be fair, that is not entirely Bryan and team’s fault. Part of what made “Company” so radical in 1970 was that it was extremely contemporary. And, like almost all things that are extremely contemporary, it hasn’t aged well. The main motif of the score is modeled on a busy signal. When’s the last time you heard one of those? While 1970s audiences may have been accustomed to people “lounging in their caftans,” while drinking vodka stingers and sazerac slings, those things all seem positively antiquated to audiences in 2014. Bryan has set the show in the 1970s, which is probably best, although viewing the show through that prism adds a layer of disengagement for the audience that strips it of immediacy. The big ideas being discussed about love and marriage in contemporary life become uninvolving; more like a diorama at the Smithsonian than a play.
The period detail, however, is authentic and well-executed, and is best displayed in Meg Murray’s wonderful costume design. Not a few costumes would have been right at home on an episode of “Charlie’s Angels,” or “Rhoda.” BA Ciccolella’s colorful lighting design is a boon to the production, although actors do seem to find the darkest spots onstage several times through the show. The set design (to which no designer is credited), sets the right tone; but it could benefit from some visual variety as the show goes on. It is also burdened with a cumbersome sofa, the repositioning of which slows down the pace several times through the evening. Shelley Cady’s music direction is customarily excellent, and her orchestra handily maneuvers the complex musical score.
The cast is altogether quite good, though largely more comfortable in the book scenes than in the musical numbers. There are some exceptions. Suzanne Genz is marvelous in the role of Joanne, Bobby’s boozy neighbor. Her rendition of the tour-de-force eleven o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” carries just the right balance of vulnerability and deadpan cynicism. Angelica Yankauskas stands out for her powerful rendition of “Another Hundred People,” a tribute to the loneliness of life in New York City. Greg Dragas (who, incidentally, looks like the teenage son on every 1950s sitcom ever) is warm and agreeable as Paul; engaged to the neurotic Amy, who is played to hilarious effect by Michelle Jenkins. Jenkins is a comedic powerhouse, whose ninety-word-per-minute patter song in which she panics and cancels her wedding just minutes before it begins is worth the price of admission by itself.
But “Company” rises and falls on the strength of its Bobby. It is a demanding role. Brach is one of the best musical theater performers in Hampton Roads; and his warm tenor voice, dancing skills, and acting ability have been on full display in many shows in the area over the years. He is more than capable of playing this role, and he does it admirably; with conviction and commitment. But the Bobby in this production comes off as aloof. Peevish. Petulant. Smarmy, even. I didn’t believe he was everyone’s best friend; certainly not the kind of guy who would willingly take his friends’ kids “to the zoo on Friday.” In the two scenes where Bobby is under the influence (he smokes “grass” in one scene, and gets hammered drunk in another), Bobby is the most relaxed; the most likable. But these fleeting moments are not enough to make us truly like him. Bobby has to be the audience proxy. We have to see the world through his eyes. But this Bobby is more of an outsider than the audience is. We, at least, want to be let into this world. He doesn’t seem to want to be; and his alienation locks the audience out. Bobby should be the center of gravity in “Company”; the sun around which the married planets revolve. But he isn’t. And so, as good as the many elements of LTN’s “Company” are, it meanders. Unfocused. What might be transcendent remains merely good; ironically earthbound.
Let’s do the time warp again. “Company” is playing at Little Theatre of Norfolk through September 28th. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $15-$18, and must be purchased in advance. Tickets can be purchased from the LTN website.