Bobby.../ Bobby.../ Bobby baby.../ Bobby bubi.../ Robby.../ Robert darling.../ Bobby, we've been trying to call you…
This is my favorite Sondheim musical. Yes, it’s dated, but it’s been updated. Yes, it doesn’t measure up in some ways to some of his later works, but it stands on its own.
So, why do I feel this way? I think it is THE breakout musical for Sondheim, for which he wrote both the lyrics and music (not his first time, but his most successful first time). It set the stage for everything that followed in American musical theatre. His intricate scoring, the deep emotional, dramatic and comic connections, his ability to merge words and music, anoint him as our very own Shakespeare of the American musical stage.
So we set off to see the MNM Production at the Rinker Playhouse which is part of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, albeit late in the production run. Therefore I was able to see what some of my “fellow” critics had to say about the show, which I would characterize as being lukewarm, one even unfairly comparing it to the Dramaworks’ Sweeney Todd production which is concurrently playing nearby. Such a comparison is apples to oranges (although Dramaworks’ production is the best Sweeney Todd that we’ve ever seen). One is more like opera and the other is like a cabaret revue.
This is a high, high energy production and MNM Production’s mission is to bring Florida’s own reservoir of considerable talent to the stage. These are all local professionals and we who live in South Florida have to applaud and support such an effort. Many of the cast we’ve seen before, predominately at Dramaworks. They are highly experienced and most of the cast have great voices and terrific comic timing.
Company is also squarely set in New York City in 1970, the year Ann and I married and we were still living there. So it speaks very directly to me. It is not his very first NYC focused work. His musical, Saturday night about City life (which is rarely performed) was written by him in the mid 1950s when he was just developing his craft. It never opened at the time as the producer died. It finally was performed in the late 1990s after Sondheim was THE name on Broadway.
Company rose out of a number of one act plays written by George Firth and was brought together by Sondheim, morphing the main character – outsiders in each -- into one person, “Bobby.” It utilizes a series of connected songs that underscore the main theme: the foibles of marriage. For its time it was revolutionary as so many of Sondheim musicals have continued to be.
It's the story of Bobby the bachelor who is conflicted about being married versus the stories of his friends who have problematic marriages as well as his girlfriends who have issues of their own. Bobby is plainly confused. It hangs out there like unresolved anxiety, right to the end.
As it was based on a series of plays that spoke for themselves, the music Sondheim wrote is not in the classic move-the-plot-along variety. As he himself said "the only effective approach I could come up with was quasi-Brechtian songs which either commented on the action, like "Barcelona" – but never be PART of the action. They had to be the opposite of what Oscar [Hammerstein] had trained me to write, even though he himself had experimented with songs of that kind in Allegro. I decided to hold the score together through subject matter: all the songs deal either with marriage or in one sense or another, New York City."
In reflecting on the musical in his book Finishing the Hat, he said "Chekhov wrote ‘if you are afraid of loneliness don't marry.’ Luckily I didn't come across that till long after 'Company' had been produced. Chekhov said in seven words what it took George and me two years and two and a half hours to say less profoundly. If I’d read that sentence, I am not sure we would have dared to write the show, and we might have been denied the exhilarating experience of exploring what he said for ourselves."
That’s the back-story to this groundbreaking musical, one that explores the loneliness of love relationships, and the importance of friends, in the most vibrant metropolis of its time. We move through the “approach-avoidance” complex of marriage through a series of songs, so many of them now classics, and several incorporated in the widely performed Sondheim revue, Side by Side by Sondheim.
As some of the critical reviews pointed out, the actor who plays Bobby does not have an exceptional singing voice, and he has to sing some of the more moving songs, “Someone Is Waiting," “Marry Me a Little,” and "Being Alive," but he carries these on the shoulders of his acting abilities and we enjoyed his performance. He is also supported by some of the finest singers in South Florida and so much of the show is ensemble singing and then solos or duets by Bobby’s friends and girlfriends.
The four couples in the play (Joanne and Larry. Peter and Susan, Jenny and David, and Harry and Sarah) knock it out of the park with "The Little Things You Do Together," an acerbic rebuke about marital relationships. The husbands meanwhile leeringly hover over Bobby, singling "Have I Got A Girl for You" in the first and second acts.
There are several real show-stopping moments in this production: Amy’s riotous, “Getting Married Today," Marta’s “Another Hundred People," capturing the city’s sense of alienation with gusto, and Joanne’s stinging, cynical piece about the empty lives of affluent women in the city, "The Ladies Who Lunch." His girlfriends, Marta, April, and Kathy, critique his non-committal ways in a hilarious pastiche of a sister act song in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
One of my favorite songs from the show is “Sorry – Grateful,” expressing the ambivalence of marriage, sung by Bobby’s friends, Harry, David, and Larry when Bobby asks Harry whether he was ever sorry he got married. It’s a perfectly measured argument, lyrically, and expressed in a waltz like rhythm. I’m not going to include all the lyrics, but here is an excerpt, classic Sondheim: You're sorry-grateful / Regretful-happy / Why look for answers / Where none occur? My own piano interpretation, in the less than ideal recording environment of my living room, can be seen / heard here.
Every song in the show is timeless and every performer brings his / her best to the stage in their delivery. Here is the extraordinary cast:
Robert Robert William Johnston*
Sarah Laura Hodos*
Harry Wayne LeGette*
Susan Amy Miller Brennan*
Peter Clay Cartland
Jenny Lindsey Corey*
David Joshua McKinney
Amy Leah Sessa
Paul Josh Kolb
Joanne Erika Scotti*
Larry Larry Alexander*
Marta Mallory Newbrough
Kathy Jinon Deeb
April. Nicole Kinzel
*Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
Bruce Linser demonstrates his considerable directing skills in this production, accentuating the comedic elements (e.g Sarah’s karate exhibition and her secret food addiction) and, with Kimberly Dawn Smith’s choreography, brings out the best of the energetic, ensemble pieces such as “Side By Side By Side” in the second act.
Set design by Tim Bennett gives the director and cast a main stage to work on and five different platforms, sometimes all of them being utilized at the same time. The set suggests the isolated nature of city life and the 70’s, although it is creatively brought into the present by Linser having his cast use the ubiquitous cell phone, replacing the answering machine.
The musical accompaniment is first rate, Paul Reekie directing four other musicians while playing the piano. This is the kind of theatre that merits our appreciation and support in the future.