The Kensington Arts Theatre is ably harnessing the considerable talents of its company into productions that are much smoother than the energetic but undisciplined shows of its first few seasons. The troupe settled into its challenging performance space, straightened out the technical kinks and are now ready for "Company," the 1971 Tony Award winner for best musical from Stephen Sondheim.
This challenging show portrays marriage through the eyes of a bachelor as he observes five couples in various stages of devotion. With a 14-member cast anchored by Andy Izquierdo as Bobby, a commitment-phobic Manhattanite, this production zings delightfully through the bittersweet concept musical that was one of Sondheim's early successes as composer and lyricist and which remains a favorite of his disciples.
Sondheim wove a series of pretty but demanding songs into a study of how people connect and commit, in a series of vignettes scripted by George Furth. The songs comment on the situations Bobby experiences, rather than advance the plot. The dialogue is wittily ironic and while there are several poignant tunes, there are also tongue-twisting song lyrics set to speedy tempos. The show is dripping with attitude. Its nontraditional storyline has couples filtering onstage to offer tuneful commentary. Cast members need to quickly project character through movement, facial expression and vocal inflection, and this troupe solidly hits the mark.
Director Craig Pettinati stages the show as a period piece, firmly grounded in the early '70s, so the cast looks appropriately terrible in the tacky period clothing and hairstyles. But the themes remain relevant (male fear of commitment is timeless), and Sondheim's score sounds remarkably fresh. Choreographer Diego Prieto, who also appears onstage, keeps the movement snappy but simple.
The small but full-sounding band is perched high atop the rear of the set, which makes for a perfect balance of instruments and voices. Kensington Arts Theatre still has work to do with scenic design, however. Matt Karner's stylized cityscape is inexplicably painted a drab gray and resembles a melting battleship more than it does Gotham, diminishing the required sophisticated visual sparkle.
However, Izquierdo sparkles as Bobby, creating a charming and affable guy who's easily confused by the mixed messages he's getting from his friends. Izquierdo's singing is beautiful, especially when gentle in "Someone Is Waiting," or emotional in the poignant closing number, "Being Alive," as self-awareness dawns on the character.
Laura Anne Knockenhauer, Karissa Swanigan and Shannon Elesa Miller inject considerable zest. They are particularly effective in the cheery "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Knockenhauer is both funny and affecting as April, the featherbrained stewardess who shares Bobby's bed for the unsettling duet, "Barcelona."
Two of the musical's usual show-stopping numbers don't quite do the trick here, though. "Getting Married Today" is a machine-gun paced "patter" number in which a bride-to-be has a panic attack and races through a jumble of doubts. It's usually the show's highlight. While Allison Harkey gets through it capably, the big spark is missing. And "The Ladies Who Lunch" doesn't stop the show as might be expected, most likely because of Lori Murray Sampson's toneless singing in the role of abrasive Joanne.
But overall, you're in good "Company" here. And, in case you're wondering, even though it can easily get lost in the comedy, the show ultimately carries a subtle, pro-marriage message, summed up when someone tells Bobby, "It's much better living it than looking at it."
"Company" continues through Nov. 19 at the Kensington Town Center, 3710 Mitchell St. in Kensington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays . For information and reservations, call 301-547-7101 or visit www.katonline.org.