Entertainment » Theatre


by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Sep 9, 2016
The cast of "Company" at the Lyric Stage
The cast of "Company" at the Lyric Stage  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

Though it wasn't the first concept musical, "Company" defined the term in the early 1970s. The Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical (with a healthy assist from director Harold Prince) had the shock of the new back then, largely because of Furth's plotless libretto, the biting words and music by Sondheim, and Prince's seamless production, which combined to offer a sardonic, if in the end sentimental, look into contemporary marriage in the Nixon years.

But has "Company" stood the test of time? After all, its commentary is some 45-years old with dialogue that cites the generation gap and the novelty of smoking pot, does it feel relevant in a time when sexual fluidity and marijuana legalization is fast becoming the norm?

Spiro Veloudos' engaging production (at the Lyric Stage Company) offers a persuasive argument as to why the show continues to hit such a strong chord with audiences. While it may seem at times to be a relic of its time, Sondheim and Furth poke and prod at relationship memes still pertinent today.

That this is the focus of Veloudos' production, which strips the show to its bare essentials, is a major plus. There is no attempt to time-stamp the piece or offer views of Manhattan (via projections as is often done) to establish the locales; instead he uses a simple, abstract set (by Janie E. Howland) that suggests the collage-like nature of the piece. The focus is clearly on the clever way Furth and Sondheim put their puzzle together.

John Ambrosino and the cast of Company  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

They synergy between the book scenes - essentially sketches - and the musical sequences is one reason why "Company" remains so enjoyable. Veloudos channels it perfectly here, abetted by a cast that balances the darker undercurrents of the book scenes with oversized comedy. This production is a bit like a graphic novel come to life - a chamber-sized production that nearly bursts the confines of the small stage. It is played so directly to the audience that the fourth wall all but disappears. You half-expect when Joanne - the icy East Side matron - shouts for another vodka stinger, you'll be getting one delivered to your seat.

What has always been the show's biggest problem is its central character - Bobby, the perfectly pleasant, if dull, leading character. When one character sings that Bobby reminds him of the Seagrams Building, it's an apt metaphor - cool, elegant and emotionally remote. Watching the show you wonder why his friends extol his virtues at every opportunity - he may be attractive, but he's dull and bit opaque.

This makes the character, who goes through a significant metamorphosis over the show's course, so difficult to play. Here John Ambrosino channels Bobby's pain and vulnerability. He's hurting, but his friends don't really appear to notice it, and that disconnect drives his performance and gives this production a much-needed tension. He also sings Bobby's solos beautifully, which include in this version the inclusion of "Marry Me a Little" at the end of the first act and the resonant standard "Being Alive" that ends the show.

What may be the chief reason for seeing this "Company" is to hear Sondheim's score splendidly sung without amplification under the musical direction of Catherine Stornetta. The cast nails the often tricky songs, most notably a commanding "Another Hundred People" sung persuasively by Carla Martinez, and the tongue-twisting patter song "Not Getting Married," pushed to dizzying comic heights by Erica Spyres. It is a pleasure to hear "The Ladies Who Lunch" sung with such conviction as it is here by Leigh Barrett as the haughty Joanne; and the often cut "Tick Tock" ballet, passionately danced by Maria LaRossa, restores a missing piece to the second act's narrative arc.

Adrianne Hick, Carla Martinez and Maria LaRossa in Company  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

The ensemble - individually and collectively - nails both the comedy with quick broad strokes and the score's dizzying musical demands. They delineate their quirky characters in such a convivial way that it's difficult not to succumb to their charms. Kudos to Rafael Jaen's attractive costume design, Frank Meissner, Jr.'s precise lighting and Andrew Duncan Will's expert sound design which balances the cast downstage with an offstage orchestra.

But beyond the dazzle of Sondheim's score, "Company" remains popular today because of how shrewdly it questions the viability of marriage before succumbing to its virtues. It is a paean to marriage and commitment that leaves its audience going home feeling good about itself. It wasn't always that way - when it first played Boston in 1971, it ended with Bobby singing that those in marriages live "happily ever after in hell." Nothing sentimental about that; "Being Alive" is, and lets the show land with a soft landing.

That's fine - the original ending likely alienated audiences because it left them questioning their values. But watching this "Company" left me wishing that sometime soon someone brash enough could convince Sondheim to allow a radical reworking, one that would cut the show to ninety minutes with no intermission and introduce some more 21st century social changes (same-sex couples, for iinstance), while shedding its more dated material. Until then, this smart and attractive version makes for some very nice company.

"Company" continues through October 9, 2016 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Lyric Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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