By Ian Rigg
Ain’t no party like a 35th birthday party.
‘Cuz a 35th birthday party don’t stop until it leaves you questioning the shallow meaning of existence, the futility of human relationships and, well….
Under the guise of a private 35th birthday party, the debut of the chicly-decorated, carefully designed and cleverly-named Venus Cabaret in the old Cullum’s bar adjacent to the Mercury Theater on Southport is a real gift.
Its inaugural production, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, is about, well, company, and all its connotations–a concept musical about the “gift” of love, and a man desperately searching its bag for the gift receipt, vacillating on whether or not he even wants to take the trip back to the store.
One thing’s for sure: the concept is pretty ingenious, and born specifically for the intimate new venue. In a semi-interactive environment, audiences enter past a “reserved for private party” sign and are welcomed into the shindig, shown to their seats, offered hors d’oeuvres, and even receive cake in Act Two. They watch the actors interacting and jamming out to a playlist believably curated for a “well-to-do-but-still-kinda-fun” white dude. As would happen at any surprise party, some of the characters arrive “late,” and one or two husbands sit by themselves with no desire to socialize.
And then comes the time to dim the lights and lie in wait for the birthday boy (who himself is lying in wait for life).
It’s all incredibly clever. Under the helm of acclaimed director L. Walter Stearns, the show is as well-designed as the space.
Marked by smart moves, Dustin L. Derry’s lighting design very shrewdly uses the absence of light as much as its presence (and cheekily deploys a green haze during the David & Jenny & Mary Jane sequence).
Livieu Pasare’s wicked-cool video design does a lot of the heavy lifting to modernize the play, serving up striking time lapses of bustling train stations, trickling fountains, and feet parading through the window of a garden-unit apartment (all with the soundscapes to match).
The rest is a burden Robert Kuhn bears with ease. A touch of retro chic pays homage to the swingin’ aesthetic of the original production, but it is decidedly by way of 2018, featuring teal leather jackets, paisley dress shirts and vinyl skirts. He also ingeniously puts each couple in outfits that let audiences extrapolate their characters, advertise their economic status and even complement one another through paired colors that tie them together.
The actors all adhere to Aubrey Adams’ precise and stylish choreography with flair.
Eugene Dizon’s crisp musical direction crackles with simmering dynamics, and a sophisticated precision that echoes the new space itself.
And within it, quite a strong ensemble has showed up to celebrate Bobby’s birthday.
There’s the trio of girlfriends he can’t (or won’t) commit to, each of whom shines. Human charisma factory Kyrie Courter has quite a fun turn as Marta, playing her role like the Tinder date who swings from manic pixie dreamgirl to more of a nightmare. Kiersten Frumkin makes the audience yearn for more of the ethereal Kathy. And Allison Sill takes flight. She simply shines as the air-headed flight attendant April; she is simultaneously riotous and heart-warming, casually commanding all her skills to portray her vacuous, vocal-fried Pan-Am paramour. Their trio number is one of the show’s highlights.
Another highlight are the couples: the pairings of neuroses that Bobby calls his friends. As an ensemble, they play like a well-oiled machine. Watch out for Jenna Coker-Jones’ exacting rendition of “I’m Not Getting Married Today” (with an assist from Nicole Armold’s immaculate soprano), Steve Silver’s uncanny ability to just inhabit a role and Heather Townsend’s definitive “Ladies Who Lunch.” She reframes icy Joanne not as a bored and moneyed housewife, but as the kind of wryly formidable executive who’d chew up a boardroom, and spit songs like beautifully-acted battery acid.
Spinning at the center of the disparate spokes of this upper-crust wheel of New York melancholy is Robert himself, David Sajewich.
With seasoned lounge vocals, Sajewich presents to the audience a deeply sad modern man. Whether he’s Robert, Bobby, Rob, Bob, Bobbi-Boobi-Buddi or whomever, he is a cipher. A subtly different version of himself to every pair of his friends, a 1000-watt smile disguising the absence of light in his eyes. Every charming mannerism is artificial, calculated to hide the emptiness within himself. He is midlife crisis Guido Contini, painted with shades of Patrick Bateman. This is a man crushed under the weight of all the lives he isn’t living. This is a star running out of helium and approaching supernova, ready to explode from the affection he denies himself. But as his Manhattanite satellites revolve around him, he’ll come to the realization (hopefully not too late) that what fills the void of empty space, what holds it all together, is love.
Bobby’s left with lots of questions, chiefly among them: “what do you get?” Certain audience members may be left with the question, “Why get the rights to Company?”
Because sometimes the production’s meaning and stakes get muddled or lost. But one could make the case that that’s what Company’s vignettes are about–being lost. Or one could even argue that it was only ever about the insufferable problems of upper middle class America.
Sondheim himself even said, “Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.”
Perhaps Stearns has chosen it not just to debut his smart concept for the Southport corridor’s new gem, but because the relic still resonates. And perhaps under the thin modern veneer of his smartphone staging lies the same aching, unanswered questions that keep those same audiences coming back to Company.
If we avoid marriage, are we resisting the urge to conform to societal pressures or resisting happiness? Is remaining in a couple the denial of the self or the elevation thereof? Have Bobby’s friends caved to social norms and exert the same on their pitiful, pariah friend? Or, is Bobby just a poster-boy for narcissistic self-ruination disguised as freedom? His ennui and anguish seems to suggest the former.
Company is a tired book that Mercury’s chic and cynical production looks at with a fresh and ultimately optimistic eye. Stearns’ assertion seems to speak that life is ultimately empty without love. It’s been said that misery loves Company. But at least we’re not alone.
Walter Stearns knows how to throw one hell of a party. The production is incredibly slick, polished, and if at times it feels hollow, it’s by design: much like the life of Robert himself. Or perhaps the birthday cake served is a better symbol for the tale of Bobby’s existence: it has no nutritional value and doesn’t leave anyone feeling full, but damn if it isn’t a delectable and well-crafted treat to mark the passing of time.
Venus Cabaret presents “Company” through June 3 at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.