When Company first came out in 1971, it was billed as Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking, concept musical. The show has been revived twice on Broadway and is scheduled for a third revival next year coinciding with Sondheim’s 90th birthday.
If the Meredith Theatre production is an attempt to capitalize on a renewed interest in Sondheim’s Company following last year’s gender-swapping, Olivier Award-winning West End revival starring Patti Lupone, that’s disappointing. If this is an opportunity for students to explore a musical that forgoes a traditional structure and narrative, then perhaps I can understand Director Catherine Rodgers and the theater department’s thought process, but I am still confused.
My biggest problem with this production has little to do with the students’ performance and more to do with the fact that these kids lack the life experience to deliver this piece with any kind of genuineness. I understand that there are lots of musicals wherein actors take on roles their senior or even junior in some cases, and for the most part, I take no issue with that. However, in the case of Company, the entire piece centers around the fact that the central character is turning 35 and all the other characters are his (or in this case her) contemporaries. So, for me, and most likely for any other adult in the room, it doesn’t work as a college main stage musical, not to mention the fact that it is a little bit dated.
However, if you can suspend belief for a minute, or you are a Sondheim fan craving the opportunity to hear the score live (and Jim Waddelow’s music direction is quite good), then this production is fine, if not a tad bit overly ambitious.
Like the West End revival and next year’s Broadway revival starring Katrina Lenk, this production updates the show (a little) and features a woman in the role of Bobbie, a part originally written for a man. Bobbie is a dissatisfied 35-year-old facing a bit of a midlife crisis on her birthday. She is the only one of her well-meaning friends who is still single, which is problematic for them (and her). So much for women’s lib. Even the one suitor Bobbie has can’t believe she managed to decorate her well-appointed apartment all by herself.
In this production, the role of Bobbie is played by Anna Brescia. Vocally Brescia struggles at times between her upper and lower register but belts out some beautiful moments as the show unfolds, especially in her delivery of Marry Me a Little at the end of Act I and Being Alive near the end.
In fact, while the big ensemble musical numbers are consistent throughout, all of the best individual performances come late in the first act and well into the second, including Jordan Clodfelter’s showstopping delivery of The Ladies Who Lunch. But perhaps the most believable, strongest moment of the production belongs to Emily Spain (Amy) and Brent Blakesley. Spain barrels through the challenging Getting Married Today head-on with confidence and near perfect breath control, and the pair balance the counterpoint section of the song in a way that feels very Sondheim-like.
Although this updated version takes place in New York City present day, Michael Allen’s mod set has a 70s vibe to it, a nod perhaps to the time period of the original Broadway production. Loramerv Jones also choreographs some entertaining moments, including the musical numbers You Could Drive a Person Crazy, featuring Ryan Vasconcellos, Hannah Hudson, and Thomas Matrejek and What Would We Do Without You? featuring all the couples. There is also a funny karate fight scene between Shane de Leon (Harry) and Laura Austin (Sarah), for which Jones was assisted by Tara Nicole Williams.
The problems inherent in this production aren’t really the fault of the actors, but rather the odd choice of the department to produce it in the first place. Perhaps next time the department will consider a musical that showcases its talent better, rather than to ride the coattails of a somewhat outdated piece that happens to be finding newfound popularity on much larger stages.