by Mark G. Auerbach
Barrington Stage’s eagerly anticipated production Company is finally here. Advance ticket sales are brisk, so if you want to see a first-class Stephen Sondheim musical in a first-class production, get your tickets before they’re gone.
I have a close personal relationship with Company, the 1970 George Furth and Stephen Sondheim musical that changed Broadway. Company launched a partnership between legendary director Harold Prince and Sondheim–one that yielded Broadway landmarks like Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along. Company was one of the first musicals to look at marriage and relationships as they evolved at the end of the Swinging Sixties. Furth and Sondheim presented Robert, a bachelor of a certain age, his friends–all married or partnered–and his occasional girlfriends. While some of the characters explore new boundaries, saying “Marriage may be where it’s been, but it’s not where it’s at”; other characters urge Robert to “want somebody, not some body”. All of the pondering is set in the frenetic rhythms of New York City, where another hundred people just got off of the train looking for something or someone.
After Company opened on Broadway, my theatre teacher took me, a teenager already experienced in theatre but naive otherwise, to a matinee. I reveled in Sondheim’s music–and still do–and Furth’s daring at the time book, Michael Bennett’s incredible choreography, Boris Aronson’s now famous set with elevators and projections, and the performances–particularly Elaine Stritch’s rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch”. I knew then that I was destined to go into theatre, in some capacity, as a career. I was also clueless as to what Company was really about, because my only relationships had been dramatic recreations of those I’d seen on stage or screen. I directed and choreographed a sequence from Company for my theatre class final, and I “got” the style of Prince and Bennett without understanding the substance of Sondheim and Furth.
Flash forward. Company became one of the great Sondheim musicals, revived frequently, although, oddly enough, never made into a movie other than the filmed version of a live New York Philharmonic concert with Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, and Patti LuPone. I’ve been in and out of love, in good and bad relationships, and now, I understand Company, and its lead character of Robert, whose choices and issues are still so contemporary today. I am a Robert. My close friend, who attended this performance with me, is a Robert. Robert’s choices are those that many men and women experience today.
Barrington Stage’s Julianne Boyd, who has proven to be a thoughtful director of musicals, brings her take on Company to Barrington Stage, with a cast headed by Broadway’s Aaron Tveit, and some other actors with strong musical theatre credentials Sondheim’s score and Furth’s book remain sharp, even if the book hasn’t aged well in parts. Boyd and creative team set this production in the 1970 time frame, and Kristen Robinson’s multi-layered set, Sara Jean Tosetti’s wonderful costumes–including a stunning ensemble for the character of Joanne and a great period outfit for the character of Marta–plus great lighting and sound by Brian Tovar and Ed Chapman are plusses. I liked Darren R. Cohen’s and Dan Pardo’s orchestrations of Sondheim’s music.
Company’s original choreographer Michael Bennett, who later created A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, had only snippets of dance to work with. Jeffrey Page’s dances evoke the pop styles o early disco, although the musical’s powerhouse dance number, “Tick Tock”, a showcase for its original performer Donna McKechnie, was dropped in Boyd’s production.
Aaron Tveit is a superb Robert, a difficult character to portray, since he’s primarily an observer with little outward emotion, until he breaks his barriers with the emotional Sondheim song “Being Alive”, which is the heart and soul of Company. Tveit is a fine singer, dancer, and actor, and he makes Robert an appealing leading man. Ellen Harvey as the acerbic Joanne, the role created by Elaine Stritch, turns “The Ladies Who Lunch” into one of those high-octane showstoppers we don’t get to see much in musicals anymore. I loved Lauren Marcus’’ portrayal of the frenzied bride-to-be Amy and her rendition of “Getting Married Today” and Mara Davi’s portrayal of the ditzy flight attendant April is a delight.
Company has been one of the highlights of my summer.
Barrington Stage Company presents Company. Book by George Furth. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Music direction by Dan Pardo. Music supervision by Darren R. Cohen. Choreography by Jeffrey Page. Scenic design by Kristen Robinson. Costume design by Sara Jean Tosetti. Lighting design by Brian Tovar. Sound design by Ed Chapman.Through September 2. Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA. 413-236-8888 or www.barringtonstageco..org
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark produces and hosts ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB Radio.