Capsule Stage Reviews: November 13, 2014

Company Bracing and potent as a vodka stinger, Company (1970), Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's multiple Tony Award-winning "musical comedy" on marriage, commitment and New York City, ushered in Sondheim as potential king of Broadway. This intimate production from MJR Theatricals and Music Box Musicals supplies plenty of grit and polish and an exceptional cast to keep this classic show spiky and full of attitude. Perpetual bachelor Bobby (Michael J. Ross), best friend of five conflicted married couples, refuses to settle down. He makes lame excuses for his noncommitment; he expects some future wife to be an amalgam of his women friends; he sleeps around and can't remember his bedmates' names. It's either/or for "Bobby baby, Bobby bubi," but there's not much positive reinforcement from the couples. George Furth's book about the joys of modern marriage is a bitchy blowtorch, and Sondheim's disco-era music and ironic lyrics are incomparable at scouring off skin: "Being Alive," "Another Hundred People," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "The Little Things You Do Together." The dissection of personal relationships and matrimony's "sorry/grateful" dichotomy is as sophisticated as a Manhattan penthouse and perfectly encapsulates what would be known later as the "swingin' '70s." Happening all at once, for all we know, during Bobby's 35th surprise birthday party, the action may all take place in his mind. The impressionistic revue flows without chronology in a series of little dramas, as each couple gets time with Robert, or someone will sing about relationships or what it's like to live in an urban jungle while a scene is in progress. The show's as fluid as a dream. Harry and Sarah (Brad Goertz and Allison Sumrall) duel in a comic male/female karate match; Peter and Susan (Adam W. Delka and Lendsey Kersey), seen by Robert as loving and perfect together, are getting a divorce; David and Jenny (Luke Wrobel and Kristina Sullivan, terrifically funny as stoned parents) believe they're too staid to be swinging and youthful; Paul and Amy (Brad Scarborough, sweet and loving, and Rebekah Dahl, sweet and manic), living together for two years, are finally getting married, prompting the show's comic highlight, Amy's neurotic patter song "Getting Married Today." Larry and Joanne (Joel Sandel and Susan Shofner) are older, richer and much married, giving the hard-drinking Joanne the caustic showstopper "The Ladies Who Lunch," which Shofner spits out in a stinging, acid rage. Bobby's girlfriends are a triptych of '70s stereotypes: April, the clueless airline stewardess (Cay Taylor, in a beautifully shaded performance); sweet Kathy (Briana J. Resa), who can't wait any longer for vacillating Bobby to make up his mind; and downtown grunge girl Marta (Libby Evans), who lives for a good time. The entire cast has had a hand in shaping the show. Each scene has a different director (Ross, Resa, Dahl, etc.) or choreographer ( Delka, Kersey, Shofner, et al). As testament to this troupe's collaboration (or the musical's tight structure and form), it's all of one piece. A superlative song-and-dance man (The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of Horrors), Ross is best when playing nebbishes and nerds, the little guy who dreams big. Although he sings up a storm and can do a nimble soft shoe with the best of them, he's not an ideal Bobby, a tad too doughy for the lady killer who's the envy of his pals and object of maternal concern from their wives. He'd make a much better Sondheim husband than this show's quintessential bachelor. Sondheim and Furth's abrasive and comic X-ray of modern marriage is classic grown-up Broadway. Under MJR Theatricals/Music Box Musicals' adroit handling (which includes Shofner's glittering hardness, Dahl's tongue-wisting nuttiness, Sumrall's smoky mezzo, Marco Camacho's projections, Mark X. Laskowski's minimalist set design, Libby Evans's unifying black and white costumes, and Jesse Lozano's four-piece orchestra), this is Company you want to spend time with. Through November 22. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Così fan tutte If you want to know all about sex, why read Masters and Johnson when you can go to the opera and hear Mozart. What better primer than Così fan tutte (1790), the third collaboration between Mozart and urbane librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The masterpieces Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni preceded this classic. The title loosely translates as "All women are like this," and if you change tutte's "e" to an "i," you get "all men are like this." That would be just as appropriate, for the opera skewers the male point of view with an equally jaundiced eye. Suffice it to say, the battle of the sexes has been raging long before and far after this work from the late 18th century, but there hasn't been anything new. In this bittersweet opera buffa, woman's faithfulness is tested, but so is man's. On a bet, disguised as exotic "Albanians" with mustaches "like plumes of love," two best friends, Guglielmo and Ferrando (baritone Jacques Imbrailo and tenor Norman Reinhardt), do their best to seduce each other's fiancée, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi (sopranos Melody Moore and Rachel Willis-Sorensen). To their horror and with blows to their vanity, they succeed — spectacularly so in under 24 hours — but they get as much heartache as they give, and then realize that women are no more suited to a pedestal than men. Everyone's only human; accept the faults and go on. Don't worry, be happy. This refreshingly modern view from Da Ponte is catnip for Mozart, who sets the fable to some of his most sublime melodies, both comic and dramatic. Most definitely a court composition, Così is refined, stylized and heightened by artifice. In structure the very picture of balance and control, its parts contrast and compare: two guys, two sisters, the roué, the flip servant. As the opera takes place in Naples, the musical atmosphere is filled with lilting breezes and sunshine. Mozart uses a lot of woodwinds and triple rhythms to achieve this effect, unique among his operas in its expressively liquid tone. Although there are coloratura outbursts from stoic Fiordiligi, whose aria "Like a rock" ("Come stoglia") has been a showpiece of technique and vocal prowess ever since the opera's Vienna premiere, and a grand, old-fashioned throwback "How will I live now that he's gone" number for the more pliant Dorabella, the opera is awash with ensemble singing: duets, trios, sextets. This is an opera about conspiracies and masquerades, so it's only logical that the co-conspirators sing together whenever possible. Of course, there's the saucy maid, Despina (soprano Nuccia Focile), the wisest of them all, who doesn't see what the women are fussing about since there are so many men in the world from whom to choose. The whirligig plot is set in motion by crafty philosopher Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli), who's fed up with the men's starry-eyed, naive view of how pure their women are. He's been around the piazza too many times to fall for that line. The bet is on. Houston Grand Opera uses the sparse and clean Goran Jarvefelt production that was commissioned for the company's triple Mozart/Da Ponte celebration, which debuted in 1988 with Don Giovanni. Resembling an antique Baroque stage, the unit set with its receding perspective is ultra chic in its clutter-free look. Carl-Friedrich Oberle's rich period costumes add eye-catching luxury. The cast is elegant, too. Vibrant and spry, with luxurious voices that wrap Mozart in velvet, they throw themselves into this divine, stylized comedy of manners. Così fan tutte. November 13 and 15. Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737, hgo.org. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover