Company. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we want to be left alone.
In the case of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at Little Theatre of Manchester, we follow Robert/Bobby’s (Randy Ronco) interactions with various forms of company at his surprise 35th birthday party, privately at friends’ homes, tense moments prior to a wedding, during accounts of romantic dalliances with three leading ladies and out enjoying nightlife with friends. While Bobby is in company with his friends, most of them married, they provoke him to think about whether he should get hitched at his age.
The format of the very lengthy musical isn’t for everyone, however I enjoyed it as a frequent theater-goer. It’s not your typical structure with a linear storyline or ornate set with major scene transitions. Instead, the actors present overlapping vignettes out of sequence in terms of time, flowing into one another despite jumping from story to story and place to place. If you’re not prepared to that, it could be difficult to follow. But if you’re not familiar to this format, your best hope for comprehension is to hone in on Bobby, the constant in all the vignettes, as much as his friends do. Pay attention to his experiences and reactions to different situations and try to put yourself in his shoes.
Also, the character names may be hard to remember with Bobby moving in and out of scenes with different couples, so focus on how they emote, the action in the dynamic between the characters and how those moments make you feel rather than trying to make sense of who’s who. If you stay open to the format, you’ll absorb the show much better. The actors and vivid characters maneuver you through maintaining intrigue despite the simple set, which mainly changes only in chair placements and beautiful lighting with different colors against a white platform.
It’s Sondheim, so if you’re familiar with his works like one of my favorites, “Into the Woods,” be prepared for highly wordy lyrics jammed into the music. That means it’s highly important for the actors to annunciate so you can understand them and the sound quality is also important. Sometimes it was hard to hear everything the actors were saying in the songs as a result, however, for the most part they articulated very well and emphasized diction with a lot of hard consonants and staccato rhythms to make the words pop. The opening was a good example of this when each character sang their nickname for Robert in overlapping monotone, giving a feel that Bobby is going through the motions in a mundane life and that his friends’ voices are almost white noise to his emotionally hollow, yet indifferent existence. Rhythm is almost, if not more, important than melody in Sondheim’s storytelling.
Ronco is charming, captivating and comfortable as Bobby, with a stunning voice. As our protagonist, he’s hard to read in terms of what he’s actually feeling or what he truly wants. Does he want to get married? Fall in love? Just be a lover? Or is his life alone okay? He is amiable with his friends, who all adore him. They seem to project their own desires or doubts onto him and push him toward finding someone special, or encourage him never to marry, and he goes with the flow taking in all their advice without necessarily reacting to it. Occasionally his wild, bachelor lifestyle flares up and he speaks in tempered defense of it, but often times he seems content with how things are and unfazed by what his friends are telling him. He gets insight into married life as he visits each of the couples and it isn’t always pretty. But he seems to find humor in it nonetheless, and while occasionally odd, he just kind of rolls with it.
The tenaciously addictive marriage of Sarah (Tracy Funke) and Harry (Shawn Procuniar) is the first vignette we see of Bobby visiting his married friends at home. Harry and Sarah hilariously fight off their vices, alcoholism and unhealthy food cravings, respectively, as they entertain Bobby and passive aggressively mask their tension and disagreements. As Sarah gives in to a plate full of brownies and Harry sneaks whisky he’s supposed to be serving to Bobby, we laugh because of the irony of their actions in contrast to how they represent themselves verbally with an initially outward strong sense of resolve in fighting their addictions. It’s real and those, while maybe extreme, are versions of what each of us may battle in our own lives. The funniest moment in the otherwise tragic depiction of a strained marriage is when Harry challenges Sarah to demonstrate some of the karate (that’s pronounced kah-rot-tay) she’s been learning, which becomes an all out violent yet humorous smack-down with near back-breaking floor pins and throws. Funke and Procuniar’s comedic timing and body language is impeccable and crucial in bringing levity to an otherwise tense and seemingly serious situation. Because of that we see that they love each other because of how they challenge each other.
The other most memorable vignette was on the wedding day of Bobby’s friends, Amy (Alysa Auriemma) and Paul (Rodney K.). Auriemma is another actress who has delivering comedy through fits and maniacal outbursts of anger and panic down to a science. It’s hard to read funny while playing serious. But Auriemma succeeds as the manic, anxious and self-destructive Amy through physical gusto, frantic pacing and extreme emotions and tone juxtaposed with Rodney K.’s calm, smiling, understanding and loving Paul on a day that is supposed to be happy. Bobby has a moment of confusion with Amy and epiphany about marriage in that scene. Amy does too, realizing she’s just afraid of marriage while Bobby is maybe afraid not to get married.
From there on, we see Bobby contemplate whether marriage could be or could have been a possibility with the women he does or doesn’t introduce his friends to — Marta (Cara Babich), April (Kate Brophy) and Kathy (Sandra W. Lee). Each woman brings something different to the table. Babich’s Marta is free-spirited and adventurous. Brophy’s flight attendant April is self-knowingly boring and hilariously drones on with dull, yet peculiarly metaphorical and slightly relatable stories. She portrays and innocently ditsy and awkward girl who does not read Bobby’s cues right in a steamy one-night-stand turned possible live-in girlfriend situation. Lee dances gracefully downstage during the lovemaking scene as the old flame who got away and who is seemingly still on Bobby’s mind in a dreamlike modern dance representation of an unobtainable relationship for Bobby.
Bobby’s visits with friends and loves and birthday celebrations don’t happen chronologically, so that can make it unclear whether his character is looking back or moving forward.
Another hilarious house visit is when Bobby gets high with his friends, David (James Galarneau) and Jenny (Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh). The two have gotten Jenny to smoke pot for the first timed. It’s a seemingly current habit for Bobby who is still living a wild bachelor lifestyle, but it’s something of the past for David. Their relationship to getting high kind of represents where they are in life. Jenny views it as an immature, wrong childish act that she seemingly enjoys being peer pressured into once, David basks in nostalgia yet knows it’s a part of his life he’s past and Bobby doesn’t understand why they don’t regularly have fun with it and why it isn’t adult. The drug takes them into a skewed reality punctuated with deep-down truth. Plus it’s pretty funny seeing each character’s take on being high. This reviewer was told it was a pretty realistic depiction. Galarneau’s smile-plastered face and spacey expression create spot-on comedy in his delivery. Is this high point a low point in Bobby’s life.
You also can’t help but laugh ironically when Jenna R. Levitt (Susan) and Sal Uccello (Peter) happily boast about their divorce as an otherwise seemingly strong couple or when Jane Cerosky’s knowing, matter-of-fact Joanne propositions Bobby at a nightclub behind her fun-loving husband, Larry’s (Randy Boyd) back.
The singing is overall strong, with some actors emphasizing character over tonality, and the cast is beautifully backed by a vocal choir and orchestra, both on an elevated, brilliantly lit platform up on stage.
Some of the vignettes seem to create an alternate reality for Bobby, who ultimately doesn’t show up for his own surprise birthday party although he does in the beginning, blowing out the candles, not telling his wish and tolerating cliche advice from his friend (like not to disclose his wish or it won’t come true). While we don’t really know what Bobby wants in a rollercoaster of vignettes and reflections, his friends blow out the candles for him, making the room dark in his absence. The cheerful notes in the orchestra connote that maybe he just wants to be alone after all.
Bring company to see “Company.” It’s an enjoyable night of Tony Award-winning, unconventional music that is raw life, whether you believe marriage is the happy ending or not!
The play is directed by Michael Forgetta, music directed by Kim Alczi and choreographed by Todd Santa Maria.
For more information on tickets, visit http://www.cheneyhall.org.