The set-up: Bracing and potent as a vodka stinger, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's multiple Tony Award-winning mordant "musical comedy" Company with its observations on marriage, commitment, and New York City is the ultimate That '70s Show.
The musical (1970), dry and abrasive as sandpaper, ushered in the decade and ushered in Sondheim as possible king of Broadway. He had to wait, though, until the following year, when Follies finally bestowed the crown upon him. Company was so different, sophisticated, and wicked that it took a while until the work really sank in. Texas Repertory Theatre supplies plenty of grit, visual polish, and a well-rounded cast to keep this classic show spiky and full of attitude.
The execution: Perpetual bachelor Bobby (Brandon Grimes), best friend of five conflicted married couples, refuses to settle down. He's so close to his married friends that when they burn he gets seared. He sees only the faults, not the pleasures in wedded bliss. He makes lame excuses for his noncommittal, he expects some future wife to be an amalgam of his women friends, he sleeps around and can't remember his bedmates' names -- he's probably gay, but the show's creators still adamantly deny that's the subtext. It's either/or for "Bobby baby, Bobby bubi," but there's not much positive reinforcement from the couples, yet his "Being Alive" epiphany is as much of a happy ending as anything else you'll find in a Sondheim show.
Although you'd never call a Sondheim score rough, this one about the joys (!) of modern marriage can scour off your skin with its velvety tunes. George Furth's book is a bitchy blowtorch, and Sondheim's disco-era music and ironic lyrics are incomparable: "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 the swingin' '70s.
The show's a revelation -- and has been an enormous influence on all shows hence -- primarily because it's so free-form in structure, taking place during Bobby's 35th surprise birthday party. The action may all take place in his mind, for all we know, as the couples flow into and out of scenes without chronology. A series of little dramas, each couple gets its own impressionistic scene 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. What ties everything together are Sondheim's evocative music and lyrics. The show's as fluid as a dream.
Harry and Sarah (John Dunn and Lendsey Kersey) compete literally in a comic man vs. woman karate duel; Peter and Susan (Andrew Ruthven and Lauren Dolk), seen by Robert as loving and perfect together, are getting a divorce; David and Jenny (David Walker and Jennifer Stewart) believe they're too staid to be swinging and youthful; Paul and Amy (Zach Varela and Katie Harrison), living together for two years, are finally getting married, prompting the show's comic highlight number, Amy's neurotic patter song "Getting Married Today;" Larry and Joanne (Steven Fenley and Judy Frow) are older, richer, and much married, giving the hard-drinking Joanne the caustic showstopper "The Ladies Who Lunch," which Frow spits out in a stinging, acid rage. Bobby's girlfriends are a triptych of '70s stereotypes: April, the clueless airline stewardess (Haley Hussey, in a beautifully shaded performance); sweet Kathy (Amy Garner Buchanan), who can wait no longer for vacillating Bobby to make up his mind; and downtown grunge girl Marta (Christina Stroup), who lives for a good time.
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Sleek and shiny with a halo of curly hair, Grimes makes a most credible Bobby, considering the character as written is a cipher who must constantly react to the craziness of others. We see him mostly through their eyes. Grimes turns Bobby loveable and sympathetic, even when seducing naive April, and does a nimble soft-shoe for "Side By Side By Side." Bobby's emotional outburst occurs in the finale, "Being Alive," where Grimes soars with heart-on-sleeve passion. Bobby's swift conversion to the healing power of monogamy is well-nigh believable.
While director Troy Scheid could add more zip to the dialogue passages -- there are more pauses than a Pinter play -- the musical numbers are first-rate, abetted by Lauren Dolk's springy choreography. Trey Otis' fine set design is a ziggurat of cubes and platforms which allows each couple or trio of girlfriends a space of their own, as well as a nifty jungle gym on which to prance up and down. Stretching behind the four-piece orchestra led by Adam Stout -- too small an ensemble to do justice to Jonathan Tunick's original disco-inspired orchestrations -- is a large silhouette of Manhattan, a dreamscape for all the characters to play against.
The verdict: Sondheim and Furth's mordant and funny X-ray of modern marriage, a classic of grown-up Broadway, is a show not to be missed. Under Texas Rep's adroit handling (which includes Frow's glittering hardness, Harrison's furious nuttiness, Hussy's simplicity, Stroup's belting, Dolk's inventive movement, and Grimes' conviction), this is the Company you want to spend time with.
As Sondheim says, "Phone rings, Door chimes, In comes Company!" through April 7 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Steubner Airline. Purchase tickets online at texreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573. $40.