Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Despite being something quite new, Company was a success. Critics endorsed the show, though not with all-out raves. In a weak year for musicals–its main competition for best musical awards was the mostly forgotten The Rothschilds–it scored a mantel full of trophies and ran for about twenty months. Its success led to a succession of other brilliant musicals by Stephen Sondheim (Follies the next year, A Little Night Music the year after that, for starters), and over the decades, Company has gathered much-deserved recognition as a brilliant and ground-breaking work of musical theatre. Which leads to the most recent Broadway revival (its third) that played in the 2021-2022 season, winning Best Musical Revival, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Set Design in a Musical Tony Awards and launched the national tour that is running with all cylinders in high gear at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Company revolves around a person stepping into the murky waters of middle-age–that is to say, a 35th birthday–without having formed a significant romantic attachment to another person, and moreover, not at all sure if such an attachment is a good idea. George Furth's extremely smart and funny book fashioned this central character as Bobby, a charismatic bachelor who has no trouble drawing women to his side, nor to his bed, but has never gotten to the point of making things permanent. Bobby's friends are five married couples who have gathered to throw him a surprise 35th birthday party, and also to needle him with remarks along the lines of "Isn't it time to settle down?" and "You don't know what you're missing" and "What are you afraid of, Bobby?" The rest of the show freezes that moment as, in his mind, Bobby reconstructs incidents with each of these couples, as well as with three of the comely women he has recently dated, all of which serve to only confuse him more about what he wants. Over the course of his ruminations he does, finally, make a decision, which he expresses in the exquisite final song, "Being Alive."
Director Marianne Elliott's brilliant conceit was to turn the male Bobby into the female Bobbie. Instead of three comely women, she is dating three well-chiseled men. She also changed one of the original couples, Paul and Amy, who are engaged and on the brink of their wedding, to Paul and Jamie, a same-sex couple. This change makes surprisingly little difference in the episode in which Amy/Jamie gets cold feet about the wedding ("Getting Married Today"), though some of the joke lines take on different meanings.
In fact, the entire gambit of changing Bobby to Bobbie makes surprisingly little difference. It certainly would have made a stir in 1970, when the women's movement was in its early days. The norm then in mainstream culture was for a woman to want to get married–or at least, to act as if she did. Sure, there were exceptions: strong-headed women who shunned convention and charted out an independent course. But Bobby wasn't meant to be an exception; he was meant to be an every-guy kind of guy with a legitimate choice to make. Today it is far easier for Bobbie to also have the opportunity to make that choice. Yes, there still is more cultural pressure on women than on men to marry, but a thirty-five-year-old woman bucking that pressure would not stand out as a rare exception.
The touring company is, every one of them, wonderful. Britney Coleman, who understudied the role on Broadway, is fabulous as Bobbie. She presents a bubble of exuberance about her life in front of her friends, and we wonder, is this how she really feels when she is with them or is she playing up the part of happy single gal to counter their nudges toward matrimony? For in a scene where she begins to believe that one of the men she has been dating could actually be the one, only to have that opportunity slip away, Coleman reveals the vulnerability nested within Bobbie's heart. On top of great acting, Coleman has a lovely, strong voice, bringing heart to "Someone Is Waiting," "Marry Me a Little," and that closer, "Being Alive"–all three among Sondheim's most emotionally rich songs.
Then we have Bobbie's married friends. Kathryn Allison as Sarah (a part she too understudied on Broadway) and James Earl Jones II as her husband Harry are riotous as she engages in constant physical exercise to suppress the urge to break her diet, while he stifles his desire for a drink since he has been "on the wagon" and poor Bobbie, not knowing about either, has brought a bottle of liquor and a dish of brownies as gifts. The contest of wills leads Sarah and Harry into a jiu-jitsu match, which Allison and Jones play to hilarious full hilt–and let's give credit to fight director Thomas Schall.
Matt Rodin gives an incredibly nimble rendition of "Getting Married Today," a song that all by itself proves Sondheim's genius as a lyricist, and plays the panic-stricken groom Jamie to a tee. His Jamie is endearing, if a bit of a drama queen, and well matched to Ali Lois Bourzgui, calm and gentle as his husband-to-be Paul. Emma Stratton plays Jenny to Will Blum's David, each with different but completely authentic and hilarious reactions to getting stoned on marijuana–supplied by Bobbie–for the first time. Marina Kondo is Susan and Javier Ignacio (another veteran of the Broadway run) is Peter, giddily portraying a couple who find they are happier divorced than they were married.
Then there is Larry, an upright kind of guy, well played by Derrick Davis, and his hard-drinking wife Joanne, who is alienated from her life as a wealthy, middle-aged woman called on to spend Larry's money and engage in meaningless activities with "The Ladies Who Lunch." That is probably the best-known song from Company, given famously acerbic performances by Elaine Stritch, the original Joanne, and Patti LuPone in the recent Broadway run. Here, Judy McLane is Joanne. McLane is strong in the role throughout the show, and brings dry wit to an early number, "The Little Things You Do Together," but her "Ladies Who Lunch," while well sung, does not quite deliver the venom we have come to expect of it. It is acceptable, but I couldn't help wishing it left a deeper bruise.
Then we have Bobbie's three boyfriends. There is Andy, a dumb but well-built flight attendant who spends a night with Bobbie before having to fly off on a Boeing. Jacob Dickey (an understury from the Broadway cast) is swell in this role, and he and Coleman's "Barcelona" is a nice little comedic mini-drama in itself. David Socolar conveys the tenderness in Theo, the sweet guy who got away. Tyler Hardwick is PJ, a nonconformist artist whose intense delivery of "Another Hundred People" makes a case for New York City itself being considered a character in Company.
Elliott, who conceived and directed the gender-switched Company in England and repeated the job on Broadway, also directs the tour, and has all the parts moving like compelling clockwork. Liam Steel repeats his work from London and New York as choreographer, and though Company has a small cast as musicals go, there are a few terrific dance sequences that feel large, in particular the second act opener "Side by Side by Side" and its "Where Would We Be Without You?" interlude, and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," sung and danced with pizzazz by the three boyfriends.
Bunny Christie's set design, based on her work in the London and New York productions, ingeniously puts Bobbie into a small box of a New York apartment, and slides in other boxes to represent other apartments, sometimes allowing the throng of friends to pass through via unexpected portals–creating an apt sense of the intensity of closeness life in New York engenders. It is noteworthy that on the three occasions Bobbie opens up and sings, with full throat, her feelings–"Someone Is Waiting," "Marry Me a Little," and that closer, "Being Alive"–the boxes glide away and she has the whole stage to herself, releasing the emotions that otherwise stay constrained within the boxes.
Lest you wonder, Elliott's created her gender switched Company with Stephen Sondheim's full knowledge and approval. He expressed pleasure in seeing the effort made to keep his work fresh and relevant to changing times. Fresh and relevant this production most definitely is, as well as keenly insightful and wonderfully entertaining. If you are looking for an example of musical theatre that can be intelligent but not ponderous, hilarious but not tawdry, and beautifully melodic, you would be hard-pressed to do better than Company.
Company runs through November 19, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For information on the tour, visit companymusical.com/tour/
Book: George Furth; Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Director: Marianne Elliott; Choreographer: Liam Steel; Scenic and Costume Design: Bunny Christie; Lighting Design: Neil Austin; Original Sound Design: Ian Dickinson for Autograph; Tour Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Hair, Wig and Make-Up Design: Campbell Young Associates; Illusions: Chris Fisher; Fight Director: Thomas Schall; Orchestrator: David Cullen; Music Supervisor and Additional Vocal Arrangements: Joel Fram; Dance Arrangements: Sam Davis; Music Director/Conductor: Charlie Alterman; Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Merri Sugarman CSA; Production Stage Manager: Jay Carey; Associate Director: Steve Bebout; Associate Choreographer: Simone Sault.
Cast: Kathryn Allison (Sarah), Will Blum (David), Ali Louis Bourzgui (Paul), Britney Coleman (Bobbie), Derrick Davis (Larry), Jacob Dickey (Andy), Tyler Hardwick (PJ), Javier Ignacio (Peter), James Earl Jones II (Harry), Marina Kondo (Susan), Judy McLane (Joanne), Matt Rodin (Jamie), David Socolar (Theo), Emma Stratton (Jenny).