SONDHEIM'S COMPANY - ALWAYS WELCOME (EVEN WHEN IT ISN'T DONE GREAT).
Barrington Stage Company’s production of COMPANY is entertaining enough on the strength of Sondheim’s score and soloist vocals by Broadway leading man Aaron Tveit as Robert, a really-not-that-happy, 35 year-old bachelor. When it comes to COMPANY, I’m over-informed (some tell me jaded), having seen a lot of COMPANYs and lots of Roberts since Larry Kurt (alas, not Dean Jones) in the 1970 original - the 1995 London Donmar production with Adrian Lester, the 1996 Roundabout revival with Boyd Gaines, the 2006 John Doyle version with Raul Esparza, etc.
COMPANY topically is about relationships - marriage, specifically. Thematically, common to the Sondheim canon, it’s about the elusiveness of love and happiness. The story, set in 1970 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the hay day of he sexual revolution, is a series of vignettes about the serial, shallow affairs of Robert (aka Bobbie, Bob, Rob, Robby) intercut with comedic sketches of the married lives of his friends - who want Robert to settle down - concluding with Robert’s confrontation with the big question, “what’s it all about?” Despite Robert’s fun friendships with five not-so happily married couples, he can’t find that someone special. He really can’t find himself. He’s disconnected emotionally.
Robert is a conundrum of a roll: to play disconnected, an actor still needs to be connected to the other actors in the play but “act” emotionally aloof. In playwright George Furth's book, this is a liability for Mr. Tveit: often times he seems to be in his own play, waiting for a solo. Robert is supposed to be sexually charismatic - an object of envy to the husbands and desire to their wives. Unfortunatetly, the plenty handsome Tveit presents sexually inert. Fortunately, stylistic solos are Tveit’s asset and the show’s high points come in three of them: the beautifully plaintive “Someone Is Waiting “ in Act 1, the quirky, ironic “Marry Me a Little” that closes Act 1 and the rousing, emotional finale, “Being Alive”, which Mr. Tveit imbues with distinctive, vocal interpretation, unheard from previous Roberts. Tveit's "Being Alive" is one of the finest renditions I’ve ever witnessed.
The pacing of the show is uneven. It begins slowly, but picks up rhythm only episodically, most notably for a stretch around the male ensemble “Have I Got a Girl for You” about halfway in Act 1. Missing is a sustained electricity, a kinetic buzz. Robert’s friends should be a like bunch of amusingly neurotic electrons randomly bumping off each other. They come, they go. The movement is pretty much back and forth.
Casting of featured roles is curious. Only one of the trio of Robert’s girlfriends seems credible as a “girl” Robert would date - April, the stewardess (remember it's 1970) played by Mara Davi, who performs the bittersweet “Barcelona" with charming perfection.
As for the cynical, alcoholic Joanna, played by Ellen Harvey (the role made indelibly famous by the one-and-only Elaine Stritch), her delicious wisecracks don’t get the emphasis the character or Ms Harvey deserve. As for “Ladies Who Lunch”, arguably one of the top 11 o’clock numbers of all time, Ms Harvey skates on thin ice between angry singing and drunken shouting. Lauren Marcus as Amy, a loony bride-to-be, more successfully navigates another Sondheim ditty almost impossible to sing, the zany, fast-tempo, tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today”.
Choreographer Jeffrey Page introduces some nifty footwork for Robert’s girlfriends in the bright, sassy “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” but for the big ensemble number that opens Act 2, “Side by Side by Side”, he eschews a version of the crazy homage to old-fashioned, Broadway chorus-line song-and-dance originally conceived by legendary Michael Bennett, for a choreographed mad-cap touch football game. It fumbles.
Even with the disappointments of this production, COMPANY is always like an entertaining evening in the company of good friends. And that’s true of Barrington Stage’s version for both Sondheim aficionados and initiates alike.
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