Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Company"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Alexander Wright


Reviewed by Alexander Wright

Review for "Company", through October 2, 781-942-2212

Presented by the Quannapowitt Players

Robert..........................K. J. Olsen
Sarah............................Nina Faragher
Harry............................Frank Hildebrand
Susan............................Kristin Hughes DeVivo
Peter.............................Ed Knights
Jenny............................Margaret McCarty
David...........................David Salovitz
Amy.............................Lisa Deschamp
Paul..............................Paul Murphy
Joanne..........................JoAnne Powers
Larry............................Lewis S. Blair
April.............................Susan Panzica
Kathy............................Juree James
Marta............................Kimberly Palson

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Andrea Butler
Music Director: Timothy Evans
Stage Manager: Judy Forgione
Producers: LeighAnn O'Neill, Kate Mahoney
Scenic Design: Donna Corbett
Lighting Design: Ken Lord
Costume, Hair, and Makeup Design: Marc Capizzi
Sound Design: The Sound Posse
"Tick Tock" Choreography: Jennifer Plaza
Tap Choreography: Yvonne Merrill
Set Dressing: Marcia Friedman

As the Fall 1999 community theatre season kicks into full gear the Quannapowitt Players open their 63rd year with an unenthusiastic and lukewarm production of Stephen Sondheim's and George Furth's "Company". To begin, this musical is not a very strong or even wise choice for most community theatres (unless it's staged as a concert) and was most likely selected due to the success of the well-received Broadway revival of 1995. The Quannapowitt version is musically executed more than adequately (using the same book and score as the revival) and has some genuine moments, but it does not capture the essence and spirit of an updated incarnation of Sondheim's and Furth's musical comedy.

"Company" follows the life and times of five married couples along with their collective best friend Robert's (K.J. Olsen) attempts to connect with someone for his own long term relationship. The "story" of each couple is presented in a series of vignettes (flashbacks) upon which Robert, or "Bobby" as his friends call him, contemplates both the positive and primarily negative aspects of being involved intimately with another human being. The elementary lesson Bobby learns is that no couple is perfect and one must be willing to accept "for better or for worse" as a necessity in maintaining and nurturing a fulfilling long term relationship.

Mr. Olsen does a serviceable and clean cut job in the role of Bobby. "Someone is Waiting", and "Marry Me a Little" (which has been added to the latest version) are full of feeling and conviction. However, these emotions are oddly missing from the final number of the show, "Being Alive". He carries off his musical numbers with a controlled vocal restraint and ease that complement the difficult score. Mr. Olsen has a solid feel for the dialog, yet his portrayal is not particularly charismatic. He makes it difficult to understand why Bobby is the center of attention of the five couples comprising his "inner circle" of friends.

The reason may not be Mr. Olsen's fault, but rather that the role is not a very interesting one. Bobby is an example of a lead character that exists to keep the rest of the show rolling along. He spends most of his time listening to the problems of his friends rather than engaging in his own pursuits. The supporting characters have more distinctly drawn lines and shadings--we learn more about them than Bobby himself.

The ensemble works well together and their sound is evenly balanced. That's quite a feat given the complexity inherent in a tricky and demanding Sondheim score. The musical direction (Timothy Evans) is sprinkled with a healthy dose of professionalism. The only musical problem of the evening is when Amy (Lisa Deschamp) is drowned out at the end of "Getting Married Today" and we don't get the treat of catching all of Sondheim's witty lyrics.

As is the usual case with community theatre musicals, the women outshine the men. This show is no exception. Nina Faragher (Sarah), Margaret McCarty (Jenny), Ms. Deschamp (Amy), Kimberly Palson (Marta), and Juree James (Kathy) deserve special mention for their enjoyable and entertaining efforts.

With the excellent musical direction and wonderful execution by the ensemble, you're probably asking, "What can go wrong?" I'm afraid that's the fault of the director and design team. The most obvious shortcoming of the Quannapowitt production is its inability to create the world of contemporary New York. "Company" is structured around fast paced city living in the Big Apple and the atmosphere of the show needs to convey this. The environment should emphasize the unique Manhattan alienation and disconnection of self that further complicates personal relationships.

The multi-level scenic design by Donna Corbett is highly functional while providing adequate space for movement downstage. It is also extremely inventive as it disguises a clever rollaway bed for the "Barcelona" scene and number. Unfortunately, the minimal set dressing by Marcia Friedman is an eyesore. I think she was going for a modern art deco scheme, but the result is more dull, cardboard, and cheap, rather than flashy, solid, and sophisticated. The use of black and clear plexiglass, mirrors, chrome and plush dark velvets would have done wonders for spicing up the set and making it more "hip".

The costumes, designed by Marc Capizzi, do little to establish the sense of time, and like the set dressing, lack the sophistication and style of New York. Several of the women's costumes make them look matronly and even dowdy. One male character wears a bolo tie and another wears an argyle sweater vest. Styles range from the 70's to 90's. Ms. Palson's costume is practically the only one that truly suggests a contemporary attitude and sensibility.

The second shortcoming, which is less obvious, but easily apparent, is the artistic direction provided by Andrea Butler. While displaying glimpses of brilliance in "Side by Side by Side" (which includes a very fun miniature marching band sequence) and "Have I Got a Girl for You", Ms. Butler must have gone on auto-pilot for several of the show's other notable numbers.

The choreography for "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" is cute and amusing, but only twice do the three girlfriends of Bobby directly address him. This song is a biting sarcastic comment on the inconsistencies of the lead character of the show, who once again, sits on the sidelines as a complacent spectator. Ms. Butler misses the chance to create some wonderfully inventive moments by not incorporating Bobby into the action. Because of this, the commendable efforts of Ms. Palson, Ms. James, and Susan Panzica as April appear to be in vain.

Ms. Palson is not given the opportunity she deserves to deliver "Another Hundred People". For this ditty, she is relegated to perching herself on a bench, lighted by a pinspot. No matter how hard she tries, the audience is not able to envision the images conjured by the lyrics (the chaos, rush, and hustle bustle of city living) since it looks like she is sitting in the middle of a deserted, out of the way park in New York City during the middle of the night. It's a terrible waste of very promising talent (Ms. Palson also looks uncomfortable dancing what is intended to be an erotic depiction of love in "Tick Tock"--an embarrassing sequence that should have been modified to work more fluidly on this particular set or cut entirely from the show).

A similar fate is suffered by Ms. Deschamp in "Getting Married Today". This delightfully comedic interlude captures the insecurities of a wife-to-be on her rainy wedding day. The lyrics are vintage Sondheim and it could very well be the showcase number of the first act. Ms. Deschamp appears more than worthy of handling the task, but as it is staged and directed, there is minimal progression of her breakdown and frenzy from start to finish. She isn't given a fighting chance to shine.

Ms. Butler has a tendency to "handcuff" her ensemble. For example, during most of Mr. Olsen's solos he is assigned to a lighted downstage area directly in front of the audience. Also, Joanne Powers as Joanne, who has the daunting task of delivering "The Ladies Who Lunch" (a signature piece of "Company" that has Elaine Strich written all over it) is reduced to carrying her drink with her for its entirety. The actors deliver acceptable renditions of these numbers, but they lack the freedom of expression and realization of the subtext to pack a powerhouse punch, particularly in "The Ladies Who Lunch".

The overall structure of "Company" is an instantaneous flashback experienced by Bobby on his 35th birthday. Therefore the birthday scenes at the beginning and end of each act should clearly suggest this. This is another facet of the production where Ms. Butler strikes out. Her staging conveys a sense of passing time and at the end of the first act we think we are at Bobby's 36th birthday party and at the end of the second act at Bobby's 37th birthday party. This causes a slight sense of confusion since the audience can see the candles on the birthday cake indicating that we are still watching Bobby's 35th birthday. A sharper sense of direction is necessary to successfully pull off this dramatic trick.

Given several shortcomings surrounding the design and artistic direction of this staging of "Company", The Quannapowitt players would have been better off presenting a concert version of this musical comedy to begin their season. The score is outstanding and the cast truly integrates nicely as a musical ensemble. However, the rewards of Quannapowitt's physical production are too far and few in between to make a fully satisfying evening of musical theater.

Alexander Wright

"Company" (till October 2)
55 Hopkins Street, READING

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide