The Pittsburgh CLO ends its 2001 season with a very enjoyable production of Company. The 1970 Broadway show, book by George Furth and music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was also presented in 1995 on Broadway (and in London the same year) with some book changes to update the script to the '90s and an added song. The CLO production offers a bit of both versions. The choice to "merge" the two versions was a smart one; though still technically set in 1970, the production is not locked firmly into any time frame and this makes it more accessible for the audience. As usual, the CLO has put together a fine cast of actors with Broadway, tour, and regional experience, some with Company experience.
The show is based on a set of Furth's one-act plays which focus on different stages of marriage (before, during, and after) and of different relationship styles. Robert observes and interacts with the couples as they, consciously and by example, help him examine his disinterest in committing to a relationship. Augmented by Sondheim's beautiful songs, the book does not have a traditional musical theatre plot, but is a study of Robert's self-examination. Staging is not traditional either, as the couples frequently participate in scenes as an "invisible" Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings in song.
John Farrell's single large set piece in this production is well designed and practical. The main part, the bridge, backed by images of Manhattan size buildings and flanked on both sides by curving staircases, is a place for cast members to sing, provide dialog, and observe Robert as he usually stays on the stage, sometimes acknowledging those on the bridge, sometimes not. Cast members bring onto the stage smaller pieces to create mini-sets on which the vignettes are played. Lighting and props contribute to making this open set very effective and appropriate for the show. Most characters in the show wear a single costume and, with a few exceptions, they are almost generic and not stereotypical of the '70s.
The dialogue is wry and witty, the lyrics are often tongue-twisting and rapid, and the songs are in classic Sondheim style - beautiful and difficult. Company calls for performers who can quickly create a character through body language, expression, and inflection, and who are also excellent singers. The casting for this production has succeeded in almost every way. Malcolm Gets as Bobby (see a recent interview) is perfect for this role. Bobby spends a lot of his stage time silently observing the other characters and, while he could watch expressionless, it's more funny, entertaining and insightful when he lets the audience know what he's thinking while he's observing. Gets has a talent for subtly, but effectively, sending a message to the audience during these scenes. He also succeeds in carrying off the sarcastic humor while still retaining the charm that is obviously felt by the characters, who are his friends. And he pays great tribute to Sondheim's songs with a beautiful voice. In Bobby's biggest song, "Being Alive," Gets delivers an appropriately emotional rendition. I feel this song will only get better as the run progresses.
During this scene, the action occassionally freezes as other cast members sing observantly from the bridge, "The Little Things You Do Together." In this song, personalities begin to emerge, most notably that of Joanne, played by Michele Pawk. Joanne is probably the the most challenging role in the show, by nature of the character's complex personality and also because of the legendary portrayal by Elaine Stritch in the original cast. Pawk evokes a little Stritch, but also brings in her own take on the role. She is good at striking a pose and an expression which convey a thousand words and by the end of the show, Joanne's true nature is well communicated. This is a role for a brave actress who is not afraid to be abrasive and unpleasant on stage. Pawk does an admirable job and sings, when necessary, with the liquor-induced coarseness the role calls for. Joanne's husband Larry is played by Christopher Carl. Though young for the part, Carl takes the responsibility of playing opposite such a strong character as Joanne. He has a wonderful voice, though he's only heard in the group pieces.
Jim Hindman and Sarah Knapp, as David and Jenny, have a challenging scene to play. Much more appropriate to the '70s than now is their scene of thirty-somethings experimenting for the first time with marijuana. Because of how well these two actors play the scene, the humor is abundant. It must be difficult to "act stoned" without looking ridiculous, but Hindman and Knapp do a wonderful job of it while also illustrating the personalities of their characters. Once again, this couple is not perfect, but they are content.
Another couple, Susan and Peter, are played by Susan Derry and Michael Halling. They manage to divorce but stay together and they are happier for it. Peter and Bobby play a scene to answer the question that may be dancing in many audience heads by this point: "So, maybe Bobby's gay?". The scene shows the answer is "No," but maybe Peter is. Derry has the opportunity to show her beautiful voice in the song "Getting Married Today"
In addition to the couples, Robert's relationships with three women are also explored. Marta, played by Leslie Kritzer, is the free thinking younger woman who shows her passion for New York City with the song "Another Hundred People." Perhaps for her rebellious nature, she wears the most '70s outfit of the evening: op art patterned bell bottoms and platform shoes. Kritzer brims with energy and really shows her vocal talents in the song the three women do together, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." In a perfect performance Kritzer, Kathy Meyer (who plays Kathy), and Angela Gaylor (who plays April) sing and dance this crowd pleasing song. In this production, Marta has the solo part and Kritzer sounds wonderful.
Kathy and April each have a scene with Robert. Kathy is an old flame and April is new one. The song "Tick Tock," dropped in the 1995 revival, is back and gives Kathy Meyer a chance to show her considerable dancing talents. Gaylor is beautiful and wonderful as April, the flight attendant who is a one night stand for Robert.
Mention must be made of the CLO orchestra who thrills us yet again as they provide full and lush interpretations of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for Company. Overall, the acting and singing talent on stage in this show is incredible. CLO's unfortunate policy of having no previews often results in very unsteady opening night performances. In the case of this production, there are some scenes that I'm sure will settle in even more with each performance as confidences build, but the show was in very good shape in the first performance.
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-- Ann Miner