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Chicago by John Olson

Company
Griffin Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of The Lion King and The Mystery of Irma Vep and Richard's review of Night and Day

Company
Benjamin Sprunger
In spite of all the Sondheim that's been performed around Chicago over the past ten years, it's been a while since we've had a professional production of Company. If I recall correctly, the last one was Porchlight's 2003 production performed in the same space as this production by Griffin Theatre Company and I think we've had mountings of all the other Sondheim musicals (except for Saturday Night) in the interim. It's about time, then, for Chicago audiences to get another look at the piece. Griffin (no relation to the Chicago director Gary Griffin) doesn't do a lot of musicals—this is just this third in their 21-year history and in a way that makes them a perfect troupe to tackle Sondheim's reflection on marriage.

So many companies seem to approach Company by racing through the book scenes in order to get to the songs, and Company arguably has Sondheim's most entertaining and accessible score. There are no less than seven killer comedy numbers, the high-energy title song, the social commentary of the pulsing "Another Hundred People" and the simmering to boiling "The Ladies Who Lunch," and four ballads that capture the ambivalence of the male characters toward the institution of marriage. Griffin has assembled a cast of local non-Equity musical theater performers who deliver the songs in performances that range from solid to knockouts. What distinguishes this production, though, is director Jonathan Berry's willingness to let his cast take their time with the scenes by the late George Furth and give them their due as comedy/drama.

Furth's script is, in many places, tricky to play. His main characters—five married couples of upper middle-class New Yorkers and the 35-year-old single man who is the best friend of all of them—are by and large people who work hard at keeping up appearances and are loath to show their real feelings. Most of the dialogue is surface-level politeness and can sound awkward if the actors try to give it any more weight than that. Berry realizes that and has his cast toss the lines off in a matter of fact manner.

Since the words don't usually reveal much of the characters' motivations, the actors are challenged to explore the subtexts beneath the dialogue to show the thoughts their characters resist expressing. The piece's central figure, the bachelor Robert, is tightly wound and guarded in his responses to his friends who tell him he ought to be married. As interpreted here by Benjamin Sprunger, Robert is polite and upbeat when with the couples: the perfect guest, flattering but never challenging them and giving short, evasive answers whenever they ask about his personal life. Sprunger's Bobby is charming with his friends, but shows his loneliness and pain in Bobby's musical soliloquies. His voice is a little thin for those ballads, but he does better with the faster-paced and comedy numbers.

One of the most vexing scenes to pull off is the one in which Bobby gets his friends David and Jenny to smoke pot with him. The couple gets high and seem to enjoy it, but as the effect of the drug wears off, David nudges wife Jenny back into the role in which he sees her: her familiar place as a "square" housewife. Even though he tells her it would be okay for her to have another joint, you and Jenny know it's not what he wants. Paul Fagen as David has a nice-guy façade that briefly slips into control freak mode while Nikki Klix as Jenny remains upbeat and happy even as the direction of the evening with Bobby takes a darker turn after the comic moments of the drug-induced high have passed. Fagen and Klix don't entirely unlock the secrets of the real thoughts of this opaque couple, but they get the general idea across.

Then there's Joanne—the role originated in the original Broadway production by Elaine Stritch. Joanne is a twice-married rich housewife with an acidic wit that stings everyone she meets, including her husband, telling someone she'd introduce her to him but "I forgot his name." Furth's dialogue gives her a number of those zingers, but it seems the actress has to temper the character's sarcasm enough to show why Robert would want her as a friend and her husband Larry would choose her for his spouse. I don't believe that Alison Cain has cracked the code on that challenge any more than most of the actresses who have preceded her in the role, but she does sing and act the heck out of "The Ladies Who Lunch," in which Joanne laments the empty lives of rich housewives who have no need to work. Her husband Larry is played by Larry Baldacci, who gives him an affable demeanor along with a powerful, emphatic soliloquy that tells us more about the real Joanne behind her cynical persona.

Berry emphasizes the comedy in the piece rather than taking the darker approach employed by John Doyle in the 2007 Broadway revival, instead following Sondheim's stated intention that the creators wanted audiences to "laugh their asses off then go home and be unable to sleep." Mari Stratton pushes the comic envelope successfully by playing the dieting wife Sarah broadly, as a louder and pushier woman. It works in the scene involving a karate competition between Sarah and husband Harry (Trey Maclin), who struggles to keep his composure as Sarah reveals Harry's drinking problem to Robert. Laura McClain is charming as Susan, the sweet southern belle celebrating her divorce from husband Peter (Robert Mclean). Though a devoted father to their kids, Peter longs for a wilder life that could include a gay encounter with longtime buddy Robert. His advances to Robert are played here for comic effect rather than the darker, uncomfortable tone the scene is sometimes given. The scene that closes act one, in which bride-to-be Amy (Darci Nalepa) nearly walks out on her wedding to Paul (Danny Taylor), very nicely delivers both the comedy and pathos of the interactions between the manic Amy and the excessively kind and sensitive Paul. Nalepa gives a first-rate performance of the comedy patter song "Getting Married Today" as Taylor captures Paul's wounded puppy-dog spirit.

Among the girlfriends, Dana Tretta delivers a sensational reading of "Another Hundred People" and nails the eccentricities of the countercultural Marta. Samantha Dubina is sweetly dumb as the stewardess April, and Elizabeth Lanza is quietly touching as the girl who might actually have married Robert. The three do a nice trio with the Andrews Sisters-influenced "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."

The music direction by Allison Kane (a different person from the Allison Cain who plays Joanne) provides strong singing from the company, with the exception of one chord, repeated three times in the show where the full company sings "Bobby" and somebody or two is clearly singing a wrong note. Also, those who know the score from recordings will miss the sound of a fuller orchestra. The trumpet parts are sorely missed. The miking sounded tinny in the first act, but this seemed to be resolved by the second act.

The bi-level set designed by Jessica Kuehnau has a circular staircase leading up to the second level. Three translucent panels on the balcony are used to good effect for introducing characters in silhouette and showing Robert lurking outside his apartment while deciding whether or not to go in to face the friends who have gathered for a surprise birthday party. Alison Siple's contemporary costumes help to place the action in the present, a decision which works amazingly well if the audience is willing to overlook just a few outdated references in the lyrics. The timelessness of the piece has been vexed more than anything by changes in telephone technology over the 40 years since its Broadway premiere. Originally, the title song included a busy signal sound effect—a telephone device made obsolete by voice mail. For the 1995 revivals, Furth added a scene in which Bobby retrieves messages on an answering machine—again obsolete thanks to voice mail. Here, Bobby listens to his voice mails on a cell phone—but why would he wait until walking into his apartment to listen to them? Sometimes it's best to just leave something alone. Company can be done as period piece, or again, just to ask the audience to overlook the few anachronisms.

Phone technology doesn't change the basic theme of the piece, though. Certainly, whatever the era, marriage is difficult. This exploration of the tradeoffs between marriage and uncommitted single life should always remain relevant and it's good to see it back on a Chicago stage in such a smart production. Sondheim fans may want to make a day of it and also see Porchlight's Sunday in the Park with George (which closes October 31), as the two are playing literally side by side at Stage 773.

Company will be performed through November 14, 2010, at Stage 773 (Formerly Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For tickets, call 773-327-5252 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.


Photo provided by Griffin Theatre Company

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-- John Olson



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