Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court., Glencoe
When: through Aug. 7
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company” premiered on Broadway in 1970, it was very different from the musicals that had gone before. Neither a “book” musical telling a linear story nor a revue, it brought together a series of vignettes on the various stages of marriage with songs that suited them perfectly. The unifying principle was that commitment-adverse Robert, who was celebrating his 35th birthday, was looking at the lives of his friends, all of them married, and weighing the pros and cons of the institution, as well as examining his relationships with three very different women. Instead of being escapist like so many of its predecessors, it held up a mirror to upper-middle-class New Yorkers who undoubtedly made up much of the audience.
Since then, “concept” musicals have become commonplace, and the internet and social media have revolutionized the whole world of dating. Watching Writers Theatre’s production of “Company,” I was simultaneously struck by how dated it seems and how basic human emotions remain much the same in all their complexity.
Director William Brown has updated the show a little, which may not be a great idea because the alterations stand out and draw attention to those that haven’t been made. A cell phone or two makes an appearance, used mostly for taking birthday photos and such, but computers and the other accouterments of modern technology mostly are absent. Of the five married couples in Robert’s (Thom Miller) circle, Sarah (Alexis J. Rogers) and Harry (James Earl Jones II) now are black, but everyone still is heterosexual, which would be highly unlikely in a contemporary musical of this ilk, especially one set in New York. Rachel Anne Healy’s eclectic costumes seem to be trying to cover all bases and time periods between then and now.
Starting with Sarah and Harry, who have developed their own way of wrestling (literally) with their differences—to the tune of “The Little Things You Do Together”—each couple displays behavior that attracts or repels Robert (or Rob, Bob, Bobby as they call him) or both. Susan (Tiffany Scott) and Peter (Gabriel Ruiz) seem to love each other and be perfectly matched, then announce that they’re getting a divorce. David (Patrick Martin) is protective of the square-ish Jenny (Blair Robertson), until the three of them get high on grass in a very funny scene, and it’s clear she has the upper hand.
Robert’s ambivalence is reflected and magnified by Amy (Allison Hendrix), the Catholic girl who in the hilarious, sad, and nasty “Getting Married Today” bails on her devoted Jewish fiancé, Paul (Bernard Balbot). Bitterest of all is the middle-aged alcoholic Joanne (Lia Mortensen in a star turn) whose younger third husband, Larry (Patrick Sarb), alternately fights with her and resignedly puts up with her antics because he loves her.
The three women in and out of Robert’s life are April (Jess Godwin), the dumb flight attendant who feels she has nothing to say; Kathy (Chelsea Morgan), who is desperate to marry and get out of the city, and Marta (Christine Mild), who loves the excitement of New York but also knows how painful the city of strangers can be. Her rather strident rendition of “Another Hundred People” has an urgent, angry edge, as do several of the other classic songs including Joanne’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” delivered by Mortensen with uncommon fury.
Besides the songs—”Someone Is Waiting,” “Marry Me a Little,” “Side By Side By Side,” an especially delicate “Barcelona,” and “Being Alive” are some of the others—Miller’s performance as Robert is one of the main reasons to see this production. As he grapples with everything from his own inability to say “I love you” to his intense loneliness, alternately wanting his solicitous, nagging friends to leave him in peace and fearing that he’s missing out on a most important part of life, he’s compellingly vulnerable and expressive, and we can see the whole range of doubts, convictions, insecurities, and feelings playing across his face. He makes us understand the value of company, both as friends and as a life companion. He also sings as well as he acts.
In general, the women in the ensemble are stronger than the men, some of whom seem to be miscast. On opening night, the sound system wasn’t quite right (this is the first musical in Writers’ new theater), and the small orchestra performing Ian Weinberger’s “orchestral reductions” under Tom Vendafreddo’s musical direction overpowered the singers at times. Brock Clawson’s choreography isn’t much to speak of, but most of the actors aren’t great dancers, anyway.
Todd Rosenthal’s intriguing scenic design features a giant partially open window looking out on a vertigo-inducing scene of the tops of skyscrapers, with a series of platforms standing in for terraces and a central circular stage with a couple of moveable appendages for props, namely Robert’s chair and a small cocktail table. From where I was sitting, some of the blocking obscured some of the actors, but that was a minor problem.
“Company” hasn’t been presented by a professional company in Chicago in several decades, and it is so difficult to do, I can understand why. Writers Theatre’s stab at it isn’t perfect, but it is worth seeing.