By Barry Reszel
Stephen Sondheim‘s ascension point to the throne of musical theatre innovation came in 1970. His Company, a deep, insightful, mostly pessimistic, vignette-driven study of New York heterosexual relationships (mostly marriage) is largely considered the first conceptual musical to receive critical and popular success.
Glencoe’s Writers Theatre’s first-class staging of the George Furth (book) and Sondheim classic is certain to be applauded by fans of the storied composer and the show itself.
It’s also the first opportunity for musical theatre fans to see the genre in Writers’ beautiful new performance space. On Todd Rosenthal‘s multi-tiered, mostly conceptual, thrust set featuring a giant askew window looking out to the New York street below, the talented cast under direction of William Brown music direction of Tommy Vendafreddo and Brock Clawson‘s minimalist choreography is perfectly professional.
New York-based Thom Miller plays lead Robert/Bobby with required initial ambivalence to his early mid-life crisis, celebrated by married friends throwing their lone single pal a surprise 35th birthday party at his place. The show’s two hours cover a three-year span offering insight to Robert’s friends’ life stations, specifically their opinions on marriage, and move Bobby from generally uncaring to mildly anxious.
Along the way are several notable markers.
Nitpicking, competitive Harry (James Earl Jones II) and Sarah (Alexis J. Rogers) take each other on in martial arts and deliver a terrific rendition of “The Little Things You Do Together.” Jones, Patrick Martin (David) and Patrick Sarb (Larry) offer the marriage ballad “Sorry-Grateful” with particular aplomb.
The pot smoking vignette with Bobby, David and Jenny (Blair Robertson) and the pre-wedding jitters piece featuring reluctant bride Amy (Allison Hendrix) and lapdog fiancé Paul (Bernard Balbot) are truly played for every comic touch, delivered expertly by the two women.
Bobby girlfriend Marta, probably the most interesting character of the bunch, is perfectly cast with the incredible Christine Mild, who kills with her solo of “Another Hundred People.” Lia Mortensen can lunch with the ladies as well as the original Joanne, Patti LuPone. Miller delivers lovely vocals, particularly in “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive.”
A full Company character breakdown, plot synopsis and production history may be read here.
The lone issue this reviewer has with the show lies not in the Writers Theatre’s execution, but in the too-subtle, minuscule character movement of Bobby over the course of three years, along with the teeth-pulling reluctance to affirm life and marriage nearly every character illustrates.
Insightful? No doubt. Realistic? Perhaps. Entertaining? Not for all. And let’s be honest, Sondheim fans, that damn “Bobby…Bobby…Bobby Baby…Boobie…Bubbie…” ear worm sung about a thousand times over the course of the two-hour production is destined to haunt Vendafreddo’s dreams until at least October.
It all makes it pretty hard to believe when Director Brown says, “From the moment it was announced more than a year ago, every single person I meet, no matter what their role in life is, says, ‘Company? That’s one of my favorite musicals.'”
Because it’s hard to imagine Company in most people’s “Top 10 Musicals.” Misery loves company; Company loves melancholy. And that’s not the formula for most popularly successful musical theatre productions.
But for those patrons desiring insight of a dramatic play with music from a master, Writers Theatre’s Company is just the ticket.
Writers Theatre presents “Company” through August 7 in the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. More information and tickets ($35 – $80) are available by calling (847) 242-600 or online here.