By Manning Harris
There is no more iconic figure in American musical theatre than Stephen Sondheim; and Actor’s Express has given us a double dose of the great composer/lyricist this year: the brilliantly realized “Sweeney Todd” in January, and now a sparkling, diamond-sharp rendition of “Company,” a break-through “concept musical,” first performed on Broadway in 1970.
The advance buzz for “Company” has been so great that it has already been extended through September 11—quite a coup for any Atlanta theatre. With direction by Freddie Ashley, music direction by Alli Lingenfelter, choreography by Sarah Turner, and scenic design by Seamus M. Bourne, the Express is giving us its first team in every aspect, and it shows.
In New York City, probably Manhattan’s East Side, it’s Bobby’s (Lowrey Brown) 35th birthday. Bobby is single, but his best pals are five married couples: Joanne and Larry (Libby Whittemore, Steve Hudson), Peter and Susan (Daniel Burns, Jill Hames), Harry and Sarah (Craig Waldrip, Rhyn Saver), David and Jenny (Phillip Lynch, Laura Floyd), and Paul and Amy (Dan Ford, Jessica Miesel).
Bobby’s friends are armed with the inevitable (and constantly reappearing) birthday cake with lit candles, insisting that he blow them out and make a wish; when he says he doesn’t have one, no matter: They love him so much they say his non-wish will still come true, and his friends are all he needs (“Company”). There’s not much doubt what they wish for Bobby, however—he needs a wife, and they are determined to help in this quest (“Have I Got a Girl for You”). Amusingly, Bobby’s male friends envy his commitment-free status, at least in part.
The plot is advanced by vignettes and above all by Sondheim’s songs (he wrote the music and lyrics and George Furth wrote the book), such as “The Little Things You Do Together,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Another Hundred People,” “Marry Me a Little,” “Side by Side by Side,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and “Being Alive.”
Bobby has three girl friends: Kathy (Emily Stembridge), Marta (Jimmica Collins), and April (Kelly Chapin Martin), and his relationships to them are revealed in vignettes. One of the most charming is his dalliance with April (Ms. Martin), who some might describe as a rather ditsy flight attendant. This she is, but she also has a perceptive heart and mind, and her sleepover with Bobby, interrupted by her early morning flight to “Barcelona,” reveals more about Bobby than he probably intended.
Mr. Brown’s Bobby is something of an enigma to me: For much of the play it’s difficult to fathom his real intentions. Does he really want “permanence in his life,” as sly Barbara Walters once asked a reclusive guest; she was really asking, “Do you want to get married?” It’s a fair question to ask Bobby: What does “Marry Me a Little” really mean? Not until the climatic, moving “Being Alive” do we truly start to fathom Bobby’s mindset. Mr. Brown’s face is often an attractive, inscrutable mask; his singing voice is lovely.
Of course, much of this wondering is Mr. Sondheim’s doing; the brilliant play-within-a-play aspect that can occur within just one song is fascinating, mesmerizing. It’s one reason the composer’s fans are fanatics; he makes you keep guessing.
Jessica Miesel’s Amy has a show-stopping number in “Getting Married Today.” It’s a “patter” song, sung by a manic, panicky Amy as she has second, and third thoughts about marrying Paul. It’s a performance of comic genius; she has the audience in the palm of her hand; a star is born.
Another show-stopping moment the late Elaine Stritch as Joanne made her own is the witty, cynical “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Here Libby Whittemore does the honors, and it’s another moment you don’t want to miss. In addition, her observations of Bobby’s character, made to Bobby, are devastating.
This “Company” sparkles; Ms. Turner’s choreography is such that she makes the actors’ movements seem not only right but inevitable. This she accomplishes with people who are essentially non-dancers.
By the way, to me New York City is one of the characters here; its brittle (sometimes) sophistication permeates the piece: “He was born in New York so nothing really interests him,” one of the characters says. And there’s a sense of sadness, of time passing, especially in Act II, that makes the entire evening more poignant.
In recent years some fans of the show have wondered aloud if Bobby is really gay. I find this a moot point; it doesn’t change the thrust or power of the show at all; you’re free to think as you wish.
If you’re the tiniest bit of a Sondheim fan, you can’t miss this “Company.” If you’re a big fan, you’ll think you’re in heaven.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.