By Tina Arth
The opening night performance of Broadway Rose’s production of Company (billed on the cover of the program as “Stephen Sondheim’s Modern Musical”) gave me a lot to consider. Audiences and actors alike tend to think of it as a Sondheim show, but this characterization overlooks the role of librettist George Furth, whose work on the book creates the episodic flow that injects a note of coherence into Sondheim’s predictably brilliant music and lyrics. Music Director Jeffrey Childs does a fine job with the band and vocalists, coaching them into a flawless musical team as they tackle an extremely challenging score. However, it is Director Annie Kaiser who bears the much greater burden of integrating Sondheim’s and Furth’s contributions into a story worth telling.
I was occasionally distracted during the performance by ‘70s flashbacks, brought on partly by the songs (I kept hearing bits and pieces of 1979’s Sweeney Todd and 1961’s West Side Story, both key in the evolution of Sondheim’s work) and partly by the narrative structure, so reminiscent of some early ‘70s sitcoms. Given access to Google after I got home, I was gratified to learn that Furth’s acting career included several episodes of Love, American Style, a show consisting of the same sort of loosely connected vignettes, wryly commenting on the revolution taking place in America’s approach to love and marriage. Company tells the story of Robert, the lone bachelor in a group of married New Yorkers, as he approaches his 35th birthday. His friends adore him, and worry ceaselessly about his single state – but some of the women (and one of the men) secretly want him, while the men blatantly envy him his freedom (beautifully expressed in “Have I Got A Girl For You”). The couples frequently bicker, sometimes painting a dismal picture of married life, but when they sing together it’s clear that they have found a curiously fulfilling harmony in their relationships – a harmony that Robert’s commitment-phobic approach prevents him from achieving.
Jared Q. Miller (“Robert”) has the challenge of creating the enigmatic protagonist – the eternal observer, good company, connected to so many, yet maintaining his distance from all. In “Marry Me A Little” he masterfully conveys not only his attitude toward marriage, but toward life – “all the stings, the ugly things, we’ll keep unsaid - we’ll build a cocoon of love and respect, you promise whatever you like, I’ll never collect.” And his show stopping “Being Alive” closes the story, not with a neat little bow, but with an anguished admission that he must open himself to pain in order to experience anything real and meaningful in his life.
Among the rest of the cast (three girlfriends and five couples) there are several really stunning moments, both in solo and ensemble work. Most memorable for me are Luisa Sermol (“Joanne”), Joel Walker (“Peter”), and Justine Davis (“April’). Sermol’s inebriated, strident, sardonic “The Ladies Who Lunch” is the ultimate anthem to a generation of cultured, educated, intelligent women wasted by a society that lionized their empty lives. By the end, when she repeatedly cries “Rise!” I was hard pressed to stay in my seat. Walker’s sensitive and awkward conversation with Robert, dancing around the concept of homosexuality, is a poignant reminder of a time when there was no safety out of the closet. And Davis is simply amazing as the dumbest little stewardess on the planet (from a time before they were called, and treated as, “flight attendants”). She is a sparkling comic, without a trace of self-consciousness in her delivery. Her duet with Miller, “Barcelona,” is the kind of gem that could stand alone – but that serves double duty by illustrating a side of Robert that the audience has not seen.
The set for Company is a model of minimalist intricacy – appropriately flexible (the story takes place in a host of locales) and designed to reinforce our understanding that much of what we see is actually in Robert’s head, removed from contemporary reality. Costumes have a nice ‘70s feel, ranging from hippie to hipster – my personal favorite for period authenticity is Norman Wilson, whose mustache and hair place him firmly in the sitcom feel of the era.
Almost fifty years after its first run, Company is not so much dated as timeless – by adhering to the manners and mores of the ‘70s, Furth, Sondheim, and Kaiser show us that while the surface changes, the underlying human stories remain essentially the same.
Company is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 26th.