BWW Reviews: Sondheim's COMPANY Drops In at Oyster Mill Playhouse
When Stephen Sondheim and George Furth launched COMPANY on the world in 1970, it was something new and unexpected, essentially the first of the non-linear musicals told in vignettes, thoughts, and flashbacks. It was also the source of a number of songs that are now standards for the best Broadway concerts, cabarets, and Great American Songbook events, including "Another Hundred People," "Getting Married Today," "Marry Me a Little," and the whiskey-voiced woman singer's gem, first done by Elaine Stritch - who's still doing it - and now by every singer with the voice for it, "The Ladies Who Lunch," one of the finest pieces of vitriol ever to grace the stage, and still relevant even with 1960's social references.
The only problem when COMPANY drops in on you is whether it's welcome or unwelcome, expected or unexpected. At Oyster Mill Playhouse, although COMPANY is always welcome (and it's the sort of small musical that should shine on the Oyster Mill stage, as opposed to larger, heavily choreographed ones, or large-cast shows), this visitor brings along some irritating baggage. Although baggage is scattered throughout the show in various forms, the single largest piece of baggage is the script - COMPANY was revised in 1995, but this is clearly the 1970 version, which Sondheim thought needed repair later, and he was correct. Why director Alice Kirkland rolled with the dated version isn't clear.
Why does it matter? Because in the 1970 version, there was a major white elephant in the lead, Bobby's, living room and bedroom - the lead, Bobby, here played by Eric Mansilla. The show was written by two closeted gay men, Sondheim and Furth, and Sondheim spent years denying that the reason Bobby, unlike his equally middle-aged friends, couldn't commit to any of the women he dated might be that he wasn't heterosexual - despite the fact that critics and audiences alike kept asking the question, so obvious was it. That was itself a lie, as Sondheim had written, and then excised, dialogue between Bobby and Peter (Chris Marth), one of the husbands and notably the only one in the show to get a divorce, in which it was clear that both had extensive sexual experience with men, whether they were gay or bisexual (and in which Peter makes a pass at Bobby). In 1970, the song in which Bobby's girlfriends discuss his unwillingness to commit contains the line, somewhat offensive even then, that they could understand it "if a person was a fag."
By 1995, with the great change in the social landscape, Sondheim restored the cut dialogue, sweeping out the white elephant and allowing the plot to make more sense, and had replaced the offending verse with "if a person was gay." In fact, in 2013, Sondheim, who's now very much out, announced plans to do a new version of COMPANY with Roundabout Theatre Company in which Bobby is gay, and in which at least one of the five couples who are his friends will also be gay - as opposed to previously shooting down in flames directors who asked for permission to vary one or more of the couples as gay, rather than straight, couples. Why Kirkland chose the ambiguous version, which muddles the plot and contains the offensive lyrics with regard to gays, is a question: might it not just be relevant that Peter is not happily married, or that Bobby can't commit to a woman, because they also relate to men sexually (whether or not primarily)? Despite its awards in 1970, that was a gaping plot hole yearning to be answered that couldn't be touched because, in the year following the Stonewall riots in New York, Americans supposedly weren't ready for that. Surely, however, Central Pennsylvania can handle it now. It's already been performed on other stages in the region.
There are, however, gems in this production, and some shine brighter than diamonds. Anna Heckert as Marta, one of Bobby's girlfriends, sings "Another Hundred People" - a great number in its own right, it's even better when well-sung, and Heckert does the number proud. Her performance throughout the show is one of the bright lights.
So are Paul and Amy, the Jewish-Catholic couple, played delightfully by Michael Beckstein and Jen McGurn. Part of their reason for existence as Bobby's friends is to illustrate that reluctance to commit can indeed be overcome. Living together for some time, they've finally decided to marry, except that on the day of the wedding, Amy becomes a Bridezilla with cold feet. Just as Paul's directing Bobby, his best man, to call to cancel everything, Amy has a change of heart... because Paul's gone out in the rain without his umbrella, and she's the one melting. Until that moment, however, her delivery of "Getting Married Today" is a comic joy.
Joanne Beecher plays the stage Joanne, married to Larry (Ira Rappaport). They've reached the stage in their marriage where neither is quite certain why they're still married... but they'd probably never dream of marrying anyone else. Joanne is the alpha bitch of Bobby's friends, and spends most of her time making acerbic comments about other people's marriages, leading to the show's eleven o'clock number, "The Ladies Who Lunch." Beecher rips into it like a chihuahua into an Achilles tendon, going for broke and not letting it go, and she nails it. It's a rousing indictment of the pointless lives of many well-off women, and though it's full of Sixties stereotypes, they're ones that became stereotypes for a reason, and those reasons are often still there - think of Paris Hilton or the Kardashian clan. Beecher's version is as fine as any heard recently outside of a professional stage.
Harry and Sarah (Randy Stamm and Cynthia Wells) have no song as most of the couples do, but they do have a very funny karate battle with each other in their living room after dinner, as Bobby watches. While their choreographed martial-arts-meets-barroom-brawl fighting may not rise to the level of Stephen Colbert's and Martha Plimpton's in the same scene at Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, it's doubtful anyone could. Stamm isn't quite certain just how many times he winds up on the floor when the much smaller Sarah's done wiping it with him.
In a musical about a nearly-professional third-wheel and the couples he plays it for, the cast should be sufficient, but the set here is nearly an additional character. Not merely Bobby's living room, it's also a nicely-designed set of stages for the couples to act out their issues while Bobby listens, suggests, and attempts to survive both their problems and their efforts to fix him up. Kudos to set design and lighting for making those, and the projections of a stylized Manhattan, work very nicely.
There are weaknesses in the show outside of the issue of the script, but each one is comparatively minor - taken as a whole, however, they add considerably to the weight of the baggage. Is it worth seeing for the bright spots? That might depend on how much COMPANY you want to have.
At Oyster Mill Playhouse through May 18. Call 717-737-6768 or visit www.oystermill.com for tickets and information.