Sondheim gets strong treatment from Theatre Unchained's "Company"
If God had meant for man to live alone, he would never have made Eve.
That's the central theme of the Stephen Sondheim play "Company," currently running at Theatre Unchained through April 27.
The play features Bobby on his 35th birthday. He's happy and single, but all of his friends – five married couples – want him to find someone to whom he can commit and end his world of bachelorhood. But for Jacob Sudbrink's Bobby, although he doesn't admit to being unilaterally opposed to marriage, it just doesn't seem in the cards.
And thus we move through a series of vignettes featuring each couple and their joys, their sorrows, their highs and their lows.
It is a delightful evening of song and theater, a good story and great music.
Sondheim knows his way around a story as well as any songwriter ever. He's clever, full of tune and always, always relentlessly honest in his music.
A play like "Company" is made memorable by its moments. There are times in this production that it seems as if Sondheim has stopped the world, and nobody wants to get off.
The first of these moments comes early when Joanne, played with masterful dexterity all night long by Liz Norton, tries to explain marriage to Bobby in the number "The Little Things You Do Together."
"It's the little things you share together,
That make perfect relationships.
The concerts you enjoy together,
Neighbors you annoy together,
Children you destroy together,
That keep marriage intact."
Bobby then begins to journey through the lives of all his best friends. Perhaps the funniest, and also most telling, is the night he gets high with David and his wife Jenny. Bobby is experienced with grass and so is David, but not Jenny, who is partaking for what may or may not be the first time. She doesn't think she's been affected, but Bobby and David know better. And they convince her by getting her to swear, something she never does.
After a hilarious display of her first high, Jenny leaves to get something for them to eat. Bobby tells David that Jenny obviously loved getting high.
"No," David said. "She didn't love it because she got high. She loved it for me."
Nothing seems to explain the daily give and take of marriage, and the special efforts to please your mate more clearly than that.
Next, we get the show stopper of the evening delivered by Grace McDonnell, who plays Amy, on her wedding day, ready to wed Paul.
Nervous? She's very nervous. But more than simple nerves, she has been possessed by a crazed monster. The number "Getting Married Today" brings down the house with rapid fire perfect delivery, accompanied by a face and body that look like they are about to fall to pieces. Amy is dressed to wed, but she needs to talk to the guests.
"Listen, everybody, look, I don't know what you're waiting for,
a wedding, what's a wedding, it's a prehistoric ritual
where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is
maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard of, which is
followed by a honeymoon, where suddenly he'll realize he's
saddled with a nut, and wanna kill me, which he should –
Thanks a bunch,
But I'm not getting married –
Go have lunch,
'Cause I'm not getting married –
You've been grand,
But I'm not getting married –
Don't just stand there,
I'm not getting married –
And don't tell Paul,
But I'm not getting married today."
And finally, the moment that belongs to the world is Norton's delivery of the famous, "The Ladies Who Lunch."
The song has a mixture of bitterness, jealousy, sensitivity and courage, and it takes a ferocious actor to make it come alive. Norton is perfect, plaintive early on and fierce as only a woman can be at the end. With a drink in her hand, she prowls the stage and professes her toast.
"Here's to the ladies who lunch –
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they're fat.
And looking grim,
'Cause they've been sitting
Choosing a hat.
Does anyone still wear a hat?
I'll drink to that."
"Company" is an ambitious production for any troupe to try in a small space like the theater in Walker's Point. With a cast of 14 and serious music like Sondheim, it takes a real creative discipline to pull it off. But under the direction of John Baiocchi, the music direction of Sudbrink, and the choreography of Parker Cristan, they pull it off.
Sudbrink is outstanding as Bobby. He's not the world's greatest singer, but he has plenty of range and reminds me of Robert Morse when he starred in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Sudbrink has that same kind of innocent appeal and subtle carnality that combine into one very interesting person.
It's hard to say enough about McDonnell and Norton, both at different ends of the actor spectrum. Norton is older and regal, while McDonnell is young and rather coy. But they create memorable characters when it would have been easy to let the music define who they are. Instead, they defined their characters as good actors always should and then brought the music along for the ride.
There was not a weak spot in this cast. Sure, the music was recorded, and you could sometimes hear the off-stage crew whispering. But it was a night of real theater, taking an incredibly wonderful play and making it night where you wish you had brought company along to see it.
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