Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics) & George Furth (Book)
|All Photos by Jessica Palopoli|
Expectations for a great evening of musical theatre immediately rise to the top of the scale walking into San Francisco Playhouse’s auditorium with the Bill English and Jacqueline Scott sophisticated, New York, multi-apartment set greeting us. Positioned before a massive projected head of Miss Liberty – exaggeratedly skewed toward us in Lichtenstein style and color -- are six, multi-layered platforms in black, mostly void of furniture or props save stacks of large birthday presents on the center, main floor and two grand pianos bookending the total stage on two of the raised sets. Multi-colored lights and sounds of New York streets all around us prepare us for those opening “Bobby … Bobby Baby … Robby” bars of Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s now-classic Company. Resisting much temptation to join along what for many in the noticeably excited audience are fun and familiar phrases of song and dialogue will be an evening-long endeavor as we settle in for one of the best nights of live theatre most of us have probably experienced in many a month.
Robert – who is lovingly called by friends every possible nicknamed derivation – is turning 35; and five couples gather to surprise him for a party he actually already knows about. Bobby is the center of his and their universes as everyone seems to adore him, worry about him, and want to find him a bride. He, on the other hand, vacillates whether he is ready or not to settle on one mate and sets a standard so high that no one could possibly meet (insisting on the best of qualities from each of the five female halves of his friends’ couplings). The first act showcases in often hilarious escapades the evenings he spends with each couple exploring up close what their married lives are really all about – the good and the ugly. Along the way, we also get to meet some of the current candidates to be his other half (a sweet but vacuous April, a kooky intellect Marta, and a solid but-now-engaged Kathy).
To a person, this cast is stellar in song, comic antics, dance abilities, and moments of sincerity. When on stage together, the entire ensemble excels in full voice with fine harmony, highly coordinated and impressive choreography (thanks to Kimberly Richards), and movement that utilizes at some point every inch of the complex, several-floored set. The opening and finale reprise of “Company” is rousing in its dynamic, crisp delivery. The Act Two opening “Side by Side by Side,” sung in conjunction with Bobby soloing in Gene-Kelly-style dance and song, is fun and frivolous with mixtures of soft shoe, Vaudeville-like tomfoolery, and precision drills with canes.
Every musical number throughout the night only seems to one-up the previous. As Joanne (Stephanie Prentice) sings about “The Little Things You Do Together” as a married couple, Bobby’s visit to the obsessively dieting and alcohol-avoiding (that is, unless no one is looking) Sarah and Harry (Velina Brown and Christopher Reber) evolves into an uproarious duel of karate between the two lovebirds where every tumble to the floor of knotted-together bodies only leads to more roars of audience laughter (all masterfully fight choreographed by Mike Martinez). In answer to Bobby’s question, “Do you ever regret you got married?” husbands David (Ryan Drummond) and Larry (Richard Frederick) join Harry in a pensively beautiful “Sorry-Grateful” in the evening’s first of several powerful moments of reflection that speak truth to us all as well as to Bobby. The five husbands’ pushy, macho “Have I Got a Girl for You” is brilliantly matched in the next act by their wives’ perfectly syrupy “Poor Baby” where they conclude no girl can ever be good enough for their Bobby. When Bobby claims at one point that he wants to get married but just cannot find the right girl, the three aforementioned girlfriends (Morgan Dayley as April, Michelle Drexler as Kathy, and Teresa Attridge as Marta) counter with a phenomenal Rogers-and-Hart-like “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” where they zippily swap back and forth without pause staccatoed notes in incredibly fast succession.
Not calling out each iconic number so wonderfully interpreted by this cast is a sin but not to mention at least two more would be a mortal sin. Monique Hafen brings the house down (after every jaw first dropping in amazement) as she reels off at jet-stream speeds “Getting Married Today.” Her increasingly frantic hysteria against walking down the aisle calls to mind some of the best of Carol Burnett’s finest moments. But probably no song in Company comes with more anticipation of anyone who is even mildly acquainted with Sondheim than Joanne’s martini-accompanied “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Bottom line is that Stephanie Prentice grabs this song by the balls (so to speak) and totally owns it as her own. When she gets to the final, “Rise, Rise, Rise,” it was all I could keep from standing in answer to her resounding, gut-wrenching command.
And then there is Bobby; and what a Bobby Keith Pinto is. Using at least a thousand different, surely deliberate but totally spontaneous and natural-looking body gestures, eye and brow rolling, and mouth and face twisting along with scores of high jumps, stumbling falls, balled-up slumps, foot drags, and every other kind of movement imaginable, Mr. Pinto brings us a Bobby that is exploring every part of his being to discover why a life mate has not yet come his way. Not only is Robert endearing yet puzzling to his friends and frustrating yet attractive to his girlfriends, he opens himself so much to us that we have those same reactions as well as a shared desire that he figures this dilemma out. And in each of his three solos (“Someone Is Waiting,” “Marry Me a Little,” and “Being Alive”), this Bobby may sometimes begin a bit unsure of some notes; but in each case he finds the sustained, full-power voice for a heartfelt, soul-searching anthem that strikes us to the core.
We know every second that New York is where we are through the constantly changing backdrop of Designer Micah Stieglitz’s projections that true as a photograph yet fantastical as an artist’s painting. The duet of stage-separated pianos playing the complicated Sondheim score so flawlessly (thanks to David Dobrusky and Ben Prince) supports without over-powering the complicated Sondheim lyrics that are so essential to fully appreciate the musical’s brilliance.
With a ten-year-plus history of summer musicals produced in ways that provide fresh looks to old friends (The Fantasticks, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Into the Woods to name a few), San Francisco Playhouse has outdone itself with a Company to rival others’ productions on much larger stages. Much, even most, of the credit most go to the inspired direction of Susi Damilano, who insures every minute is sixty seconds of excellence on all parts. Past questions of Bobby’s sexual orientation; normal scenes of his unrobed, hot love-making with stewardess April; and bold moves to recent legal expansions of who can marry whom are avoided by the director and may have puzzled (and even disappointed) some (as heard in the post-show lobby). But on the other hand, Ms. Damilano has brilliantly provided this production with a number of well-placed clues that perhaps our Bobby has played out all we have seen in his own head, hiding away while his friends wait, real-time to our time, for him to show up at his surprise birthday party. Through Bobby’s remembering some real and dreaming up other imaginary encounters with his friends, our director leads him to the point of decision that it is time to let go of old patterns and expectations (even if it may mean, I suspect, dropping some of his closest friends) and now to find his mate on his own terms, in his own way of “Being Alive.”
Congratulations to Susi Damilano, a terrific cast, and all of San Francisco Playhouse for this fresh look at our old friend, Company.
Rating: A “Must-See 5 E”
Company continues on the Post Street Stage of San Francisco Playhouse through September 12, 2015.