By Dan Shaw
As I sat spellbound at Barrington Stage Company
’s sassy production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company,” a kaleidoscope of vintage pop-culture images from that year shimmered in my brain. I flashbacked to television shows (“Laugh-In” and “Love American Style”), movies (“Diary of a Mad Housewife” and “The Boys in the Band”), and Tom Wolfe’s landmark New York
magazine article “Radical Chic” about the party Felicia and Leonard Bernstein hosted for the Black Panthers.
Sondheim was at the Bernsteins’ party four months before “Company” opened on Broadway, and his musical is a contemporaneous dispatch from the frontlines of the Upper East Side when the denizens of Park Avenue started wearing bellbottoms and smoking grass. Director Julianne Boyd’s production — with right-on costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti — has a verisimilitude that captures the achingly groovy haute bourgeoisie of Manhattan at the tail end of the Mad Men era. But it’s misleading to describe “Company” as a period piece, because it’s a timeless take on the vicissitudes of love, marriage, loneliness, and friendship.
The scenario is simple: Five married couples are concerned that their 35-year-old bachelor friend Bobby (Aaron Tveit) will never settle down and know the unique pleasures of wedded bliss — nor the exquisite pain that only someone who “loves you too much” can arouse. Is Bobby the smart one who can ride forever the merry-go-round of the sexual revolution and bypass the heartbreak that befalls even the happiest husbands and wives? As one of his friends observes: “You know, a person like Bob doesn't have the good things and he doesn't have the bad things, but he doesn't have the good things either.”
The essence of “Company” is its bipolarity, and Boyd has teased out all the pathos and humor not only in the musical numbers but also in the comedic sketches by book writer George Furth that provide a thin narrative to set up the songs.
“Company” is easy to love but not so easy to produce because of the complexity of the music and vocal arrangements. Boyd and musical director Dan Pardo have done a mostly excellent job of getting the cast to articulate the lyrics so you can appreciate every clever nugget (with the exception of the daffy “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” that is difficult to fully appreciate if you do not already know the words). Other numbers are pure poetry delivered with the precision of ballistic missiles. It’s impossible not to have chills when Bobby asks one of the husbands if he’s ever sorry he got married, and he’s told: “You’re always sorry/You’re always grateful/You hold her thinking, ‘I’m not alone’/You’re still alone.”
The best songs — and performances — in “Company” belong to the women. Lauren Marcus as Amy stops the show as the manic bride who isn’t “Getting Married Today.” Mara Davi as the endearingly vapid stewardess April is loony and lovely in the “Barcelona” duet with Bobby. And raise a glass to Ellen Harvey as Joanne, who has the daunting challenge of performing the 11 o’clock number, “Ladies Who Lunch,” which Elaine Stritch introduced in the original Broadway production and made her anthem for the next 44 years. Harvey, who has a commanding stage presence that brings to mind Lauren Bacall, deservedly gets a roar of applause for making “Ladies Who Lunch” her very own.
Tveit faces the challenge of any actor who plays Bobby. While his friends continually profess their love for him, it’s not actually clear what’s so endearing about Bobby besides his being a reliable third wheel who helps keep his friends’ marriages intact; in return, these married couples keep Bobby company so he doesn’t have to settle down. (“One’s impossible, two is dreary/Three is company safe and cheery,” he sings.) In the finale, Tveit reveals that Bobby’s been paying attention to his friends, and he delivers “Being Alive” with the gusto of a pilgrim who has finally glimpsed the promised land.
On a summer evening in the Berkshires, Barrington Stage's production of “Company” is the best possible company.
Barrington Stage Company
(through Sept. 10)
30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA