Reviewed by Chad Bearden
Associate Theater Critic
John Garcia’s THE COLUMN
Stephen Sondheim has contributed a glut of challenging and memorable material to American musical theater. His collaborations and topic choices are varied, yielding a rich catalog of music ranging from the vengeful and cannibalistic Sweeny Todd to the exploration of a pointillist painting in Sunday in the Park with George. The technical complexity of the actual music is enough to keep even seasoned performers on their toes. Sondheim’s collaboration with playwright George Furth resulted in one of his most challenging works, both technically and conceptually. The 1970 musical Company was something new in the world of musical theater.
Nowhere to be found were the meet cute romances, fanciful settings, flashy costumes, or jovial bombast common to the standard Broadway musical. Audiences were offered a show that wasn’t the usual escapist fare they were expecting when they decided to spend a night at the theater. Instead, they were essentially shown a mirror of their own lives. Company is everyday life: the story of middle aged New Yorkers dealing with the convoluted comforts and anxieties born from relationships and marriage. And akin to real life, Company has no plot to speak of.
There are incidents and anecdotes and encounters that blend from one to the other with no specific purpose beyond examining the threads of these people’s personalities and lives, weaving them together into a mosaic depicting how wonderful and/or awful it is to be single and/or married. For 40+ years, audiences have been challenged by this complicated show, and it is a testament to the adventurous spirit of Jubilee Theatre that they not only trust their audience to give a production like this a chance but also that they’ve done the materiel justice with a production that lives up to the high standard a Sondheim musical demands.
Company begins with the married and engaged friends of 35 year old Manhattanite, Robert, as they have a go at throwing him a surprise birthday party. The opening number, conveniently called “Company”, is an intricately composed one and is the first of many challenging pieces which the Jubilee cast attacks with great gusto. It sets a strong tone and offers a quick-sketch of the characters that will be fleshed out as the musical rolls on. It also establishes the dreamy, episodic nature of the world Sondheim constructs.
The sparse, vaguely cosmopolitan set designed by Brian Clinnin is a raised hardwood floor, a window glamorously overlooking the New York skyline, some simple knee level cabinetry housing the scotch and mixed drink sets. It is sleek and versatile, becoming whatever the scene calls for. It is Robert’s apartment, a secret trail in Central Park, a dance club, a high rise terrace. Something new from one moment to the next, much like the show’s central character, Robert.
Robert, performed by Lloyd Harvey, is a cipher, being all things to all people. As the second act opens and his companions sing “Side by Side by Side / What Would We Do Without You?”, Lloyd is lauded by his friends as much as he is pitied by the audience for his freedom to be whatever he wants to be at any moment. Harvey plays Robert in two modes: smug joviality when his defenses are up, and resigned confusion in the few moments they are down. In either mode, Robert is equal parts likeable and loathsome, able to charm/deceive with shallow good nature.
He is a difficult man to pin down so Harvey avoids that dilemma by being direct and broad in his choices, always playing a distinct black or white, selecting only the occasional moment, here or there, to let us see the subtler shades of gray behind his eyes. Though it mostly works for the character of Robert, it is a performance that could benefit from a lighter touch in places, something more natural, less annunciated.
It would be interesting to watch Harvey relax into the role over the course of the run because he is certainly an attractive performer who fits comfortably in the shoes of this enigma of a character.
As the opening number comes to an end and Robert’s friends smile politely when he fails to extinguish the candles on his birthday cake, the play turns its first of many a neat trick wherein the spotlight is focused on the supporting characters. Where Robert is slick and ungraspable, the happily and antagonistically married Harry and Sarah offer the first detour in Sondheim and Furth’s exploration of so-called wedded bliss.
As played by Ben Phillips and Tracy Nachelle Davis, Harry and Sarah are madly in love and a source of constant annoyance to one another. Phillips is just enough of a schlub that you can’t take anything he says seriously, until he performs one of Sondheim’s underrated gems, “Sorry-Grateful”, and you realize the depths of his wisdom. The flip side of the matrimonial coin is Sarah, played by Davis as the yin to Harry’s yang. Davis’ Sarah is more prim and exacting, but like her husband, able to confound expectations by way of a karate demonstration that is staged to unexpected and comedic perfection. Davis and Phillips play off one another beautifully and are a highlight of the show.
Three more married couples call on Robert, the first being the insensibly upbeat Peter and Susan, played by Scott Sutton and Kenneisha Thompson. Where Robert’s smug smile is a mask, Peter and Susan’s are those of an unassuming Buddha. Sutton and Thompson invest their couple with charm far more sincere than Robert’s, and are so perfectly happy with one another that not even a subsequent divorce can spoil their bliss. More stable (and consequently less blissful) are David and Jenny who of all the couples seem the youngest and most innocent. William Massey and Octavia Thomas play them like the two smart kids in high school who ended up married. They are calm and level-headed and honest about the compromises they’ve made for their relationship.
Robert also finds time to visit with the oldest of his circle of friends, Joanne, who is half-heartedly trying to make sense of her third marriage to the affable Larry. Michele Rene’s Joanne boils over with burnt-out cynicism and really gets to unleash with a satisfying rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a defiant and ultimately mournful reflection on the self. Marcus Mauldin is patient in introducing his character Larry who seems nothing more than another trophy on the Joanne’s wall through most of the first act. When his moment arrives, he makes the most of it and before our eyes redefines not just their relationship but Joanne as a character. It’s a brief but strong moment for Mauldin.
Paul and Amy aren’t married but soon will be, and are yet another iteration of the perfect couple. This time, an eternally patient being is matched up with a neurotically self-loathing one. Brad Stephens’ Paul is the epitome of another trend in Company: the grinning idiot. Stephens’ spotlight scene sees him become a sounding board for his far more overt fiancée Amy, played with manic befuddlement by Meg Shideler.
Rather than match her physically, Stephens grins idiotically, tinting his patient smile with an impressive range of reactions to the sometimes hurtful bombardment of unfiltered thoughts from his bride. And passive acceptance is about all one can expect to muster against the force of nature that is Shideler’s Amy once she gets going. Kudos to Ms. Shideler for a bravado performance of “Getting Married Today”, one of the more difficult comedic songs in the American Theater Songbook. She performs the number with an impressive blend of speed, diction, and personality and brings the house down with her big finish.
And lest one thinks Robert spends all his time hanging out with married couples, we are also introduced to three of his current significant others. Marta, Kathy, and April are a Greek Chorus of sorts, harmonizing beautifully and already exuding strong individual personalities as they bemoan the nebulous intentions of Robert in “You Could Drive A Person Crazy”. The three interact again with the lovely “Another Hundred People” as they take turns giving us slice-of-life moments that allude to their histories with Robert. Whitney Coulter’s Marta is a free spirit, probably a bit too contemplative and in love with the world around her for the far more buckled down Robert.
Katreeva Phillips is Kathy, whose connection to Robert is probably the strongest but whose honestly with herself trumps any deeper relationship he’d like to make. And Alison Hodgson’s flight attendant April is a much deeper and textured character than the dizzy flight attendant realizes. Another theme in Company is one person or institution being in its truest form when it manages to occupy two opposite states. Hodgson somehow manages to find both the sublime truth and monumental density in April and almost steals the show in her brief moments.
As mentioned above, the set by Brian Clinnin offers an effective canvas on which to paint Company’s various scenes, as do the costumes by Barbara O’Donoghue which provide the actors with some great visual characterization. From Harry’s frumpy short-sleeve button-up to Larry’s dapper and flashy suit; from the earthy head-scarfed Marta to the simple sophistication of Jenny; the diversity of the cast is highlighted by Ms. O’Donoghue, who finds a wardrobe distinct to each of the myriad personalities on stage. This collaboration between costumer and actor brings to life an entire stage full of vivid and believable people. And special mention to Musical Director Michael Plantz and his three-piece orchestra who are so expertly hidden and perfectly synched up with the goings-on on the stage, I didn’t even realize until intermission that I’d been listening to live music.
And finally, praise must be given to the two masterminds behind the show, the first being Jubilee’s Artistic Director, Tre Garrett, for thinking outside the box and bringing a show like Company to Jubilee Theatre. And the second being Director Harry Parker for capturing a complicated blend of dreamy non-linear story-telling and grounded recognizable characters. That all the disparate parts feel like a cohesive whole when all is said and done is the sign of a hard-earned success.
Dallas-Fort Worth theater-goers should treat and challenge themselves and make plans to see Jubilee Theatre’s Company.
- In Good COMPANY (bradstephens.wordpress.com)