The set-up: 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, is the ultimate That '70s Show. The mordant musical ushered in Sondheim as potential king of Broadway. (He had to wait 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 truly sank in. This intimate production from MJR Theatricals and Music Box Musicals supplies plenty of grit, polish, and a well-rounded cast to keep this classic show spiky and full of attitude.
The execution: Perpetual bachelor Bobby (Michael J. Ross), 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 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. His Act II epiphany, "Being Alive," is as much of a happy ending as anything you'll find in a Sondheim show.
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."
The show's a revelation and has been an enormous influence on all shows since, primarily because of its free-form, revue structure. 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 scenes flow 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. Tying everything together are Sondheim's evocative music and lyrics. The show's as fluid as a dream.
Harry and Sarah (Brad Goertz and Allison Sumrall, both smooth as ninjas) 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 is all of one piece.
Bobby is the musical's omniscient observer, the outsider around whom everyone revolves. He may be a cipher, but he's a question mark with charisma. A superlative song-and-dance man (The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of Horrors), Ross is at his best when playing nebishes and nerds, the little guy who dreams big. Although he can sing up a storm and 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 husband pals and object of maternal concern from their wives. He'd make a much better Sondheim husband than this show's quintessential bachelor.
Company thrives in the small space at Music Box. In Marco Camacho's projection design, photos of the characters or videos of NY traffic deepen the expanse. When not in the scenes, the actors, like a modern Greek chorus, sit off to our left. They watch what's going on, too. Pared down, Mark X. Laskowski's set design is barely visible: a box, a cocktail table, one child's scooter, that's all this show really needs. Libby Evans' costumes are variations on black and white, another unifying motif. The four-piece orchestra, led by pianist Jesse Lozano, is too small to do justice to Jonathan Tunick's original disco-inspired orchestrations, but it's a lively ensemble.
The verdict: Sondheim and Furth's abrasive and comic x-ray of modern marriage is a classic of grown-up Broadway. Under MJR Theatricals/Music Box Musicals adroit handling (which includes Shofner's glittering hardness, Dahl's tongue-wisting nuttiness, Taylor's simplicity, Sumrall's smoky mezzo), this is Company you want to spend time with. Company continues through November 22 at Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. Purchase tickets online at musicboxmusicals.com or call 713-522-7722. $35-$45.
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