From Providence Players, 'Company' Worth Keeping
Thursday, May 11, 2006
The Providence Players have plunged into the world of musical theater after eight seasons of familiar comedies and dramas. Rather than merely test the waters with a cautious production of an audience-friendly war horse, they're jumping right in with Stephen Sondheim's "Company." It's a musically challenging concept show with an ambiguous, bittersweet message. "Company" is a treasure, but it demands much from performers and audience alike.
The Players haven't mastered this show, but they do a good enough job to make it likely that musicals will be part of their future.
After a slow start on opening night, in which many in the 15-member ensemble seemed self-conscious and reserved, the cast gradually warmed up. (By the time of the Act 2 opener, "Side by Side by Side," there was practically a circus onstage.) Many supporting players' voices are not quite up to the rigors of Sondheim's complex, non-melodic songs, and several attempts at stylish choreography have awkward results, but there are no cringe-producing moments.
Performers battled an ineptly operated sound system; Paul Nasto's lively orchestra overpowered them, and so Sondheim's lyrics, rich with sharp commentary, were frequently incomprehensible.
"Company" was the first big hit for Sondheim as a composer and lyricist, aided by writer George Furth. It won the Tony for best musical, best book and best original score in 1971.
Songs and vignettes provide a jaundiced view of marriage, as seen through the eyes of Bobby (Sean Currigan), a 35-year-old bachelor observing couples in various stages of devotion and commitment. The music mixes poignant and buoyant numbers, along with a couple of Sondheim's signature "patter" numbers, in which tongue-twisting song lyrics are hitched to rapid tempos.
Director Bill Vander Clute hasn't fully hitched his cast to a rapid tempo, and uneven pacing drains energy, with unnecessary long pauses after big numbers.
He's also not on the same page as his scenic and costume designers. This show is firmly set around 1970. The show's music still sounds modern, but the zeitgeist of that time is deeply ingrained in the plot and lyrics. The Manhattan of the time, with a lava lamp and '70s clothes, all bear witness to the prevailing ethos, but Vander Clute tries to make the story take place "tomorrow."
He's wrong. Even his use of a scene added a few years ago (gratuitously dropping in a gay subtext and muddying the story) doesn't make "Company" contemporary. Issues of loneliness and commitment explored here may be timeless, but "Company" is best savored as a period piece. (So lose those cellphones in the crowd scenes, people!) The bad sound sabotaged Betsy Andrews's rendition of one of the show's signature tunes, "Another Hundred People." What little could be heard sounded great, but the moment was lost. "Getting Married Today" suffered the same fate, and so Rachel Moreno's comic exertions were wasted.
Beth Whitehead stole several scenes as crusty old Joanne, the role that earned Elaine Stritch a Tony nomination. Whitehead's no singer, but the bitter "The Ladies Who Lunch" is performance art, and she performs it artfully.
Betsy Bates goes for cute and perky as stewardess (this is 1970, remember?) April. Her post-coital duet with Bobby, "Barcelona," is touching, poignant and unsettling, even as she gets a few more laughs.
Currigan spends much of the show as an enigma but engages fully for "Marry Me a Little," his high baritone notes evoking wistfulness as Bobby tries to figure out how to achieve fulfillment without commitment.
The Providence Players probably will iron out the kinks, but they will have to reach beyond their circle to bring in talented musical theater performers and directors for future shows. Their "Company" is, at least, enjoyable.
"Company" continues through May 20 at the James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 7:30 p.m.; a Sunday matinee is at 2. The final show will be sign-language interpreted. For tickets and information, call 703-425-6782. For information, visithttp:/