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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Welcome Company Arrives at the
5th Avenue Theatre

Also see our review of The Underpants

With the arrival of a slam-bang production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company, the 5th Avenue Theatre has pulled off their best staging of one of the musical theatre master's work as they continue their mission to produce all of his shows. Though the 5th has had a satisfying Sweeney Todd, a festive Forum and a fairly lilting A Little Night Music in the past few years, Company displays director (and 5th Avenue Artistic Director) David Armstrong and his team putting it together to maximal effect. And the two overriding reasons why? A well nigh perfect cast and a well placed trust in the original version of the show. No revised book scenes to amp up Bobby's questionable sexual identity here, no inclusion of the cut "Marry Me A Little" to give Bobby one more song. Just the great show that in 1970 vaulted Sondheim to the throne as the king of Broadway composer/lyricists, and won Company six Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in the process.

Company
Hugh Panaro and Cast

Plotless, character-driven musicals were virtually unheard of on Broadway when Company opened. The show is a behind the urban bedroom door look at five married couples (well okay, four and one about to be) and their 35-year-old birthday boy, bachelor pal, Bobby. Bobby has three girlfriends in his life, but is nowhere near committing to a relationship with gritty urban girl Marta, sweet but misplaced in Manhattan Kathy, or ditzy stewardess April as the show begins. Yet, through his observances of the lives of his "good and crazy" married friends and his dates with the trio, he come to an understanding that "Alone, is alone, not alive." Some 36 years later, it still is.

This Company is bracingly alive, beginning with its sung vocal prelude of "Bobby, baby, Bobby bubi" and tearing into the electric title song, with Jonathan Tunick's ideal orchestrations played to the hilt by musical director Ian Eisendrath's smashing orchestra. Broadway veteran leading man Hugh Panaro as Bobby tackles the tricky central character quite successfully, making us believe he has been befriended by the diverse pairs of couples due to his warmth, charm and ability to fit in. Panaro's warm vocal tones and wide range amply serve Sondheim's intricate yet richly melodic score, and he uses the witty and probing Sondheim lyrics as guideposts in tracking the character's emotional maturation. Bobby can be the life of the party ("Company", "Side by Side by Side"), the asshole ("Barcelona") and the sensitive guy ("Someone is Waiting", "Being Alive"), and in all instances Panaro triumphs.

Shelly Burch
Shelly Burch
Yet this production is not Panaro's showcase alone. In this remarkable cast there are several standouts. Shelly Burch in the role of the worldly, sardonic, and twice divorced Joanne is quite remarkable. This stunning lady, perhaps best known in musical theatre circles as Claudia in the original Broadway version of Nine, reinvents this touchstone Elaine Stritch associated role to maximal effect. This Joanne may have a venom-dipped put down at the ready, but she has an underlying humanity, and really seems to care for Bobby. We understand why third husband Larry (the always ingratiating Laurence Ballard) has stuck with her. As for Burch's rendition of Sondheim's brilliant indictment of "The Ladies Who Lunch," let it only be said that if Stritch's definitive rendition always elicited laughs and chills for me, Burch's searing and heartbreaking way with it is equally valid. If the 5th decides to do Follies again at some point, they need to look no further for an ideal Phyllis. As the wacky bride-to-be Amy who is "Getting Married Today" (to Daniel C. Levine as a cuddly Paul), Kendra Kassebaum not only knocks the song out of the ball park but creates a memorably funny/scary characterization in the bargain. Anne Allgood may not have a solo song assignment but her slowly getting stoned Manhattan Mom Jenny (wed to David Drummond's low-key David) is quite possibly the funniest characterization on the stage. Not far behind her is the blissfully zany Bobbi Kotula as Sarah, whose karate chop approach to her marriage to David Quicksall's wry Harry leads Burch and the ensemble into the still hilarious "The Little Things You Do Together."

Susannah Mars lends her distinctive vocal prowess to the soprano soloist part of "Getting Married Today," and, together with stage spouse Timothy McCuen Piggee, mines laughs as Susan and Peter whose relationship works best once they are amicably divorced. Lisa Estridge as Marta supplies a powerhouse delivery of "Another Hundred People" and gleans giant guffaws with her sassy, streetwise character. Billie Wildrick makes April a warmly sympathetic airhead, and she partners Panaro well on "Barcelona." As Kathy, Anna Lauris scores on the featured section of the Andrews sistersesque trio of "You Can Drive a Person Crazy" with Estridge and Wildrck, and does well with her plaintive breakup scene with Bobby. As Lauris has the dance chops, it would have been nice to see the "Tick Tock" dance solo retained for this production.

James Wolk's multi-level scenic design, complete with elevator, is stunning: an ideally realized early '70s microcosm of urban Manhattan, splendidly lit by lighting designer Tom Sturge. Linda L. Salsbury's costumes are a perfect blend of period style, color coordination and sophistication, and her gown for Burch's Joanne is a knockout.

One quibble, and a recurring if less frequent one at the 5th, is sound balance between the orchestra and the cast in ensemble numbers. As not everyone has a diehard's familiarity with Sondheim, it would be great if some of his lyrics weren't drowned out, as those in Company are among his very best.

Company runs through November 5, 2006 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for more information.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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