Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2000
I was 13 years old when "Company" opened on Broadway in 1970. In my mind, it was the musical that established Stephen Sondheim as STEPHEN SONDHEIM, although I am well aware that he had had an illustrious career before that. It was a musical that changed things - changed Broadway, changed the way people thought about Stephen Sondheim. And until yesterday afternoon I had never seen it. Oh, I could sing most of the songs and I knew what it was about, but I had never actually seen the show. And now that I have, I understand.
Periodically in the theatre there are shows that mark a sea change in the manner in which we present musical theatre. "Showboat" and "Oklahoma!" are usually noted as two of them, and oddly enough both are credited with making the same change in American theatre about 15-20 years apart (a change that did not take?) but I would add "Company" to that list.
I was surprised to discover that "Company" is not a musical but a play with music. The full integration of script, music and dance supposedly wrought by "Showboat" in the 1930's and "Oklahoma!" in the 1940's is missing from "Company". There is script and there is music. The characters sing their wonderful Stephen Sondheim songs about their lives and their feelings, but the songs don't spring FROM their lives and their feelings. The music stands aside as commentary. And the result is a very long (three hours!) show because we have to take time for the script and for the music, and, occasionally, as if someone somewhere thought we really ought to have some in a Broadway musical, for dance.
"Company" is also a thoroughly adult musical. Don't pack up grandma and the kiddies for this one. Pot is smoked, sex is had, propositions (homo- and heterosexual) are made, cigarettes are smoked, large quantities of alcohol are consumed. There is nothing here that anyone much under 30 can relate to, and this in the era when the slogan of the day was "Don't trust anyone over 30…"
The premise is this: The never-married Bobby is turning 35. His friends, all married couples, throw him a surprise party. The ensuing three hours takes place in Bobby's mind between the time he learns of the party via a mistaken message on his answering machine and the time he stands his friends up rather than face their celebration of his passage into middle-age. The entire show is Bobby's perspective on being a single man of "a certain age" in a world of couples. The title of the show should be taken very, very literally. This is not company in the theatrical sense but just plain company, companionship, the need human beings have to be together rather than be alone. Do we marry for love, for sex, or just for company? And if it is the latter, is that really so terrible?
Barrington Stage, as always, has mounted a handsome production buoyed up by a fine cast. Robert Bartley, in marathon central role of Bobby reminded me way too much of Charlie Brown. When everyone put on baseball hats in "Side by Side by Side" I was already to shout "Give me a 'T'!" And Erin Gilliland who played the dim-witted stewardess April would make a darned good Lucy.
A real stand-out in this cast is Alison Bevan as the over-the-hill lush Joanne. Every time she takes the stage she is obviously the star, and her number "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch" (musically a delightful Sondheim nod to the popular Burt Bacharach lounge-style popular in 1970) earned the longest applause of the evening. This is a fun role for a middle-aged actress, and there are very few of those going around. Bevan knows this and makes the most of her moment in the sun.
The set looks nothing like the compartmentalized one designed for the 1970 Broadway production. The Barrington stage set, designed by John Coyne and lit by Jeff Croiter is horizontal rather than vertical, placing everyone on a level playing field. Everything is vividly colored in oranges, reds, pinks and greens. Not the fluorescent colors of 1970, but the hip shades of today. Director Julianne Boyd has made this a very au courant "Company" although I caught only one modernization in the script - a reference to Prozac which we sure didn't have in 1970. And the only real anachronism was the reference, in Sondheim's lyrics to "Another Hundred People" to an answering service. In "Company" Sondheim managed to capture American life and marriage so surely that it has weathered 30 years without obvious aging.
In 1970, by the time this show made it to Broadway, Stephen Sondheim was 40. I have no idea whether he was married then or now, but it is obvious that the 35-ish Sondheim wrote Bobby as an alter-ego. This year Sondheim will turn 70, and the fictional Bobby would be 65. More turning points in human life, perhaps worthy of another Sondheim musical?
"Company" runs through July 16 at Barrington Stage Company. The show runs three hours and is not suitable for children. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-528-8888.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000
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