Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sondheim's Company at NCRT

Below is a slightly different version of my review of Sondheim's Company now at North Coast Rep.

Bachelor Bobby’s 35th birthday is celebrated by his married friends at the beginning of Company, the Steven Sondheim musical now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. That makes Bobby five years younger than this musical, which had its premiere Tony Award-winning run on Broadway in 1970. Though the NCRT show seems based on the revived and apparently revised 1995 version, there are aspects of this earlier origin that still set this musical apart.

After costly late 1960s failures, Broadway musicals were open to experimentation. One prescription was to make them more contemporary in content, with subjects and treatment that reflected real issues of that tumultuous time. Another was to become more contemporary in form, acknowledging non-naturalistic trends revolutionizing non-musical theatre ( Theatre of the Absurd, Beckett, Albee, Pinter, etc.) and the related attention to earlier European influences (especially Brecht), which were coming to New York on stage but also in foreign films, not only the 60s French New Wave and British comedies but film classics made in the 50s and before, but not widely available in the U.S. until the 60s.

Finally there was the call (championed by an influential New York critic or two) for new approaches to the music in musicals, or at least new blood. It had often been said that while popular music had been transformed in the decade of the British Invasion, Motown, Dylan and folk rock, etc., the music in musicals was lost in the past.

So in 1970, Company comes. With book by George Furth, it has no single story in traditional narrative terms, and even time doesn’t progress in expected ways. For example, Bobby’s birthday is celebrated three times, each with slight variations, but they may all be that same 35th. There are other story aspects that contradicted expectations then, and still do. Critic Frank Rich later characterized the overall approach as Brechtian, presumably meaning the famous alienation effect. (Sondheim later agreed with this characterization.) It’s probably best for today’s theatregoers to understand this going in. But it's interesting that while this approach continues to influence all kinds of theatre, it hasn't become standard. People still expect linear time (or at least clearly demarcated flashbacks) and a story through-line.

Other innovations have become more familiar. By dealing with the holy cow of marriage frankly and ironically, this show opened the musical to new possibilities (and paved the way for Woody Allen.) While its observations sometimes seem time-bound, there’s a lot that’s apparently universal. Steven Sondheim’s musically sophisticated mixing of classical and popular influences is comfortably postmodern today, though back then it was just being more like Paul McCartney.

Sondheim at that point was a successful lyricist (West Side Story, Gypsy) and composer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), but Company defined what would be forever known as Sondheim.

At NCRT, the set by Daniel Lawrence is composed of handsome marbled but monochromatic platforms of various heights, with a backdrop of a city skyline. Director Tom Phillips arranges and nimbly moves a large cast across spaces representing various apartments and other locales in Manhattan in the mid 1990s: five married couples and three of Bobby’s girlfriends.

The 1970 Broadway production was characterized by Michael Bennett’s lavish dances (he later did A Chorus Line), and the most recent 2006 version (which local Sondheim fans may have caught on PBS) by the novelty of the cast also being the orchestra. This NCRT production has neither. Nor can it match the edginess or the New York cynicism. The North Coast is just too nice. Frankly, I’m not complaining.

Even with a certain dramatic slackness, this production uses the show’s basic form—a series of scenes, with each couple having at least one—to provide notably enjoyable individual moments. Among them, there’s Bobby’s three girlfriends (played by Molly Severdia, Lisa McNeely and Katy Curtis) doing 1940s Andrew Sisters harmonies and 1920s dance steps in their song, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” There’s the well-executed coupling-by-karate, performed by Megan Caton and Jasper Anderton. There’s a funny first pot-smoking experience with Caitlin McMurtry and Frederic Belanger. There’s the dynamic performance and show-stopping voice of Katy Curtis as the youngest girlfriend Marta, singing “Another Hundred People.” Marta idolizes New York as a woman all in black at the end of the bar crying. In a subtle (perhaps Brechtian) touch, she later anonymously lives the image.

There’s Christina Comer (of NCRT’s recent Gypsy) revealing yet another talent—for screwball comedy—with a hilarious, Carole Lombardian scene in a wedding dress. Dianne Zuleger (also the show’s music director) performs the most storied of Company’s songs—“The Ladies Who Lunch”—with raw verve. Kevin Sharkey has the thankless task of playing Bobby, the supposed central character who especially in this production is mostly an uncertain cipher of sincerity, defined by the shifting expectations and projections of his married friends. His progress towards definition is at best cumulative. But when he defines his own emotions and expresses them, particularly in his final song (“Being Alive”), Sharkey delivers.

The remaining cast members--Shaelan Salas, Evan Needham, Craig Benson and Daniel Kennedy--have their character and vocal moments as well. The orchestra of Justin Ross, Joe Severdia, Julie Froblom, Hilson Parker and Molly Adams play a deft and fittingly understated accompaniment, visible just in shadows behind a half wall at the back of the stage. Lauren Wieland provided the realistic costumes, David Tyndall some tasty lighting.

Company continues at NCRT Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, with three Sunday matinees and one Thursday night performance.

This show opens NCRT’s 27th season, which will also include Charlie’s Aunt, My Fair Lady, Othello, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and The Kitchen Witches by Caroline Smith.

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