Sunday 31 January 2016

Sondheim's Company a charming time piece

Quicky version

Company is a series of vignettes about five New York City couples circa 1970 who are not friends themselves but are all friends of a bachelor, Robert, who is turning 35. The show was a break-out piece for songwriter-lyricist Stephen Sondheim whose work putting words to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story music was his previous stage high note.

Presented randomly, the vignettes depict couples whose relationships are in varying states of development, dishevelment or outright disarray, if only momentarily. And yet each couple tries to convince their bachelor buddy Bobby to "Jump in! The water's fine!" in the marriage pool. Lovable but aloof, the phlegmatic Bobby prefers casual, desultory relationships with three part-time girl friends instead. Only at show's end does he decide, precipitously, he may take the plunge albeit mate unknown.

What is remarkable about this play are Sondheim's songs and the lyrics that populate them, not the storyline that is derived from some 11 individual playlets written by George Furth. Musical comedy fans who want some flashback moments about what couples' influences were at play a half-century back will find lots to chuckle at as well as be moved by Sondheim's sure grip on songwriting.

Wordy version

From the footlights : Prior to Company, live theatre on Broadway in New York generally dealt with the travails of the upper-middle-class, all Gatsby-esque machinations and clutter. Sondheim's show featuring five separate striving middle class couples with marriages in various stages of development, dishevelment or outright disarray, put to music, was new in design and theme. Sort of Stephen Sondheim underscoring tunes to dialogue-bits by Edward Albee and Alice Munro and Harold Pinter and Neil Simon.

Through 15 songs, the lives of Bobby's friends and girlfriends are revealed in all their day-to-dayness from those vastly more innocent times, fully three decades before 9/11 changed the New York landscape for good. While complex-ish, these are stylistic moments of angst for sure. Such as when Joanne (thrice married) sings slightly sardonically about the ladies she lunches with : "Here's to the girls on the go / Everybody tries / Look into their eyes / And you'll see what they know / Everybody dies." (In 1965 Boomers had already got bent on Bob Dylan's early rap-piece "Subterranean Homesick Blues" : "Short pants, romance / Learn to dance / Get dressed, get blessed / Try to be a success." To such as these, Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" surely rings as 50's quaint.)

But not to sound or be cynical in the least. As Dooley Wilson put it so pointedly to Humphrey Bogart's Nick in Casablanca, the "it" in human relationships never really changes. It truly still is the same old story as time goes by.

How it's all put together : Structurally the play has Bobby invited to dine and party with each of the five couples to celebrate his 35th. Also individual scenes with each of his girlfriends. Two acts, two hours for these meetings plus the "company" chorus numbers that really make the show.

With each couple, there's a hook or quirk that's explored starting with Sarah (Jennifer Suratos) and Harry (Jacob Woike). She's a chocolate-loving chub in calorie withdrawal. He's a twice-busted DD trying to avoid booze. Their schtick is to nag one another about their addictions with Bobby in the middle blithely swilling bourbon and mediating. 

From this one of the show's funniest one-liners : Sarah proclaims "Sara Lee is the most phenomenal woman since Eleanor Roosevelt!" After a provocative tease from Harry about "all those fat broads in her wrestling class", the scene collapses lit.& fig. during a clever karate sequence, followed by the song lyric : "It's the little things you do together / That make marriage a joy."

Next up come Peter (Peter Monaghan) and Susan (Amy Gartner) who announce gaily and with verve that they're about to go to Mexico to get a quicky divorce that later boomerangs on them

Marijuana made the scene in USA on college campuses around the time the Beatles and the Stones burst onto the rock stage. Thus a charming giggle of a scene involving toke-ups with David (Mark Wolf) and Jenny (Cassady Ranford) on their NYC balcony. David says he's "potted", proof positive Sondheim, 40 at the time he wrote Company, wasn't there. A lyricist's ear brought that forth, surely, not a toker who lived it. 

Sondheim circles back repeatedly to the marriage theme to tie these vignettes together. After proclaiming "I'm not avoiding marriage, it's avoiding me", Bobby's three girl friends Marta (Cecilly Day), April (Morgan Chula) and Kathy (Brianne Loop) direct a delightful put-down piece at him trois : "You could drive a person crazy!" they proclaim, and ultimately he loses them all.

While slowish to develop, Act I ends crisply. Easily my favourite chart of the night was Cecilly Day leading the others in "Another Hundred People" about the 100's and 100's of people arriving in NYC by the hour. These are some of Sondheim's most compelling lyrics of all. 

"Some come to stare, some to stay / And every day / The ones who stay / Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks / By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks / And they walk together past upholstered walls with crude remarks / And they meet at parties through the friends of friends who they never know."  Listening to Day's poignant delivery of that refrain again-&-again, how could the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" not come to mind.

Then the show's possibly single-best comic performance, from Amy (Leah Ringwald). She is all dressed to marry Paul (Xander Williams) and she suffers the most compelling neurotic case of buyer's remorse ever staged. Sheer utter delight. Only when the pleasingly dull Robert offers his hand to Amy as a stand-in for Paul does Amy exit upstage centre quite happily with bouquet-in-hand to go through the nuptials with Paul after all.

Ending Act I is what turns out to be Sondheim's theme for the entire piece when the likeable duffus Robert sings "Marry Me A Little" : "Someone... / Marry me a little / Love me just enough / Warm and sweet and easy / Just the simple stuff / Keep a tender distance / So we'll both be free / That's the way it ought to be / I'm ready!" Reminds me of a contemporary bachelor friend, twice divorced, who announced just prior to Divorce #2 : "I'm fine with marriage, but only for about three days a week...!"

Final number that really struck home was the troupe's kick-off to Act II, "Side By Side By Side". A vaudeville / follies routine strutted with canes and bowler hats that champions The Bob : "What would we do without you / Should there be a marital squabble / Bob will be there / How could we ever get through / What would we do without you?" The blocking and costumes and timing and staging were all crisp, tight, visually and aurally a delight. Fun fun fun indeed.

What the show brings to the stage : As the head atop this review suggests, Company is a charming time piece of musical theatre that is lovingly resurrected by the United Players of Vancouver under Director Brian Parkinson. The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim strike the audience more compellingly than his tunes which, while Tony Award winning, generally-speaking do not create the ear worms of an Andrew Lloyd Webber piece [whether one loves or loathes ALW notwithstanding].

The subject of heterosexual marriage ("Love and marriage / love and marriage / go together like a horse & carriage" -- Frank Sinatra) is not au courant. A quick visit to Commercial Drive in EastVan, for example -- the neighbourhood where we lived for a decade -- reveals numerous lesbian couples, many with children, often enough mixed-race families. 

But the concept of "lifelong commitment" to another human being is what Company brings back to the fore that will ever be relevant, regardless whether straight or some aspect of LBGTQ. Giving up a large chunk of personal independence is always the trade-off for mutual comfort, support and intimacy beyond the cheap thrills of a one-night-stand. (In Company, both of those ideas are played out a bit : Bobby's one-nighter with April that they both enjoyed, but when she agrees to drop her stewardess flight to Barcelona the next day to loll around Bobby's bed a bit more, all he can respond is "Oh gawd!" Also there's the curious bit of Susan's husband Peter wondering if Bobby would be up for a little male-on-male tumescence. Bobby is utterly nonplussed at the prospect and leaves Peter on the porch drooping.)

Acting pin-spots :  Strong performances throughout among the 14 cast, no question. Precisely and delightfully selected to a person by Director Brian Parkinson. The actors who most engaged me and my family, consensus tally, were Jacob Woike (Harry), Leah Ringwood (Amy), and Cecilly Day (Marta). Nick Fontaine as Robert / Bobby was steady and strong, with a marvellous singing voice, but his staging by Mr. Parkinson was a bit too laid-back, nonchalant, and emotionally detached. One imagines a slightly more energized aloofness would work somewhat better for contemporary audiences. 

The individual voices, particularly Amy Gartner's stupendous soprano and Caitlin Clugston's hefty alto profundo as the middle-age dipsomaniac Joanne ("The Ladies Who Lunch") also stood out among the others already cited.

Production values of note : Clever functional Laugh-in knock-off set (without the doors) by Brian Ball. Utterly suggestive of NYC apartment window walls. No adornment necessary. The multipurpose rectangular boxes for chairs and loveseats and the boudoir scene worked neatly. 

Choreographer Julie Tomaino crafted some intricate footwork among the cast in their chorus numbers that was first-rate : clipped, variegated, tightly wound, but used the whole stage at the same time. Brava! 

Musical Director Clare Wyatt's team threw great chops at the charts before them. Enticing sounds with interesting cadences and minor tune nuances.

Who gonna like : As noted repeatedly, this is delightful time-piece stuff. Folks who want a TDML of what was once thought to be utterly avant-garde musical theatre will giggle and chortle and clap with enthusiasm. Sunday's matinee featured a handful of 20-somethings, most of the crowd however both of junior-senior and senior-senior pedigree. That's because the central conceit of the show -- "Is marriage worth it?" -- is a subject that time has created countless variances of and convolutions thereto. Thus a 1970 cut at it in the pre-9/11 heterosexual universe of the time freezes the photo (Snap!) in a still-frame f1.4 close-up. No matter. This is a tight and well-rehearsed and completely robust group of actors that brings Company together. Just for the numbers I highlighted above I would happily go again.

Particulars : Produced by United Players of Vancouver. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by George Furth. At the Jericho Arts Centre 1675 Discovery Street, through February 14. Run-time 120 minutes, with intermission. Phone 604.224.8007 for schedules and tickets or on-line @

Production team : Director Brian Parkinson.  Executive Producer Andree Karas (Artistic Director United Players).  Production Manager Fran Burnside. Technical Director Neil Griffith.  Assistant Directors Barbara Ellison, Jordon Navratil. Musical Director Clare Wyatt.  Choreographer Julie Tomaino.  Assistant Choreographer Nicol Spinola.  Dance Captain Brianne Loop.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Lighting Designer Randy Poulis.  Costume Designer Jordon Navratil.  Sound Effects Designer Sean Anthony.  Properties Designer Linda Begg.  Stage Manager Becky Fitzpatrick.   

Performers : Francis Boyle (Larry).  Morgan Chula (April).  Caitlin Clugston (Joanne).  Cecilly Day (Marta).  Nick Fontaine (Robert).  Amy Gartner (Susan).  Brianne Loop (Kathy).  Peter Monaghan (Peter).  Cassady Ranford (Jenny).  Leah Ringwald (Amy).  Xander Williams (Paul).  Jacob Wolke (Harry).  Mark Wolf (David).

Musicians :  Jeremy Orsted (Trumpet).  Gordon Roberts (Drums / Percussion)  Jennifer Williams (Reeds).  Clare Wyatt (Piano).



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