BWWReviews: Circle Players' COMPANY Opens The 2012 Season With Praise-Worthy Success

BWWReviews-Circle-Players-COMPANY-Opens-The-2012-Season-With-Praise-Worthy-Success-20010101

With a cast filled with some of Nashville's most talented stage performers, director Paul J. Cook's version of Company-now onstage at The Keeton Theatre in a sparkling new production from Circle Players-is brimming over with theatrical riches. But if you had to pick just one from among this cadre of showstopping stars, I'd pick one Ms. Debbie Kraski, whose Joanne in as memorable as any you might have seen, and as heartbreakingly genuine as any you might ever have hoped to witness.

That's not to say, of course, that the remainder of the cast is shabby or lackluster. On the contrary, Cook's cast is very nearly perfect and the overall production is winningly appealing. It's not without a few minor shortcomings-the "time" of the plot seems particularly hazy and the decision to keep all The Players upstage in Bobby's apartment while the rest of the musical's scenes are played out downstage at times proves distracting-but it is a charming iteration of Stephen Sondheim's emotionally satisfying musical which shattered many preconceived notions about the mechanics of musical theater when it debuted in 1970 and which today continues to engage audiences to great effect. And what might once have been controversial is expected and commonplace.

But back to Kraski: Her Joanne is witty and acerbic (just as  George Furth wrote her), but Kraski very knowingly invests in the character a great deal of heart, with an undercurrent of emotion and feeling running through each of her showstopping moments in the spotlight. Thanks to Kraski, "The Little Things You Do Together" imparts much more dramatic and comic heft, and her tour-de-force performance of the iconic "The Ladies Who Lunch" is delivered with such ferocity that it rivets you to your seat: the anguish and anger of Joann's evisceration of café society's relegation of the older woman to an unfair place at the cocktail table is deeply felt and convincingly sung. It's definitely a "wow!" moment in a production filled with them.

Set in the Manhattan apartment of Bobby (played by Nashville theater's consummate everyman Mike Baum, who seems born to the role), on the occasion of his 35th birthday, Company brings five couples together to celebrate the birthday boy and to encourage him to find the right woman, to settle down and to get married, which is, they maintain, the only possible course of action for a bachelor of his vintage. Bobby, looking on the marital states of his friends with the practiced eye of the impartial observer, doesn't quite get the rush to judgment his friends are pushing him toward-although he ultimately admits, in the quintessentially inspiring "Being Alive," his own need to bond deeply and irrevocably with another human being-but is eager to comprehend how their lives are made different, for better or worse, by marriage.

Baum is at his charming best as Bobby, his focus allowing the audience to feel a part of the onstage action and his stage presence ensuring their rapt attention throughout the show.

The lives of his crazy, married friends are juxtaposed against Bobby's own relationships with three very different young women in his life-Marta, April and Kathy (played, respectively, by Erica Haines, Melodie Madden Adams and Stacie Riggs)-and the scenes with Bobby and "his women" fairly bristle with a necessary tension that makes his inability to make that ultimate decision all the more realistic and more involving for the audience. Each of Bobby's girlfriends is played with such conviction and energy that each is unique in her own way and it's doubtful that Cook could have cast the three roles any better. Haines is slightly left-of-center as the outspoken Marta (she's the one I suspect Bobby spends his 35th birthday in pursuit of), performing "Another Hundred People" with richness and deptH. Adams is wonderfully screwball as April, her self-assured delivery of her lines offering a master class to fledgling actors in the audience. And Riggs is sexy and attractive as Kathy (who most likely is number two on Bobby's list of possible fiancées). The three women are introduced via the delightful "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," which remains a favorite among a score filled with songs that are now musical theater classics.

As the five married couples who surround Bobby throughout the play and in his life, Cook has assembled a fine cast of actors, managing somehow to capture the chemistry and je ne sais quoi that epitomizes couples who are meant to be together no matter what else happens around them.

The ridiculously talented Rebekah Durham is paired with the equally gifted Geoff Davin as Susan and Harry, both of whom are battling addiction-she to food, he to liquor-by sublimating their fears and frustrations through a variety of ways which culminates in an onstage display of karate that is nothing short of hilarious, yet which remains completely revealing of the problems in their relationship.

Lindsay Terrizzi Hess and Russell Qualls are well-cast as the normally strait-laced Jenny and Peter: She's the square who finds herself with a serious case of the munchies after a brief marijuana-fueled walk on the proverbial wild side, while he is her loving, if diffident, partner.

Real-life married couple Lynda Cameron Bayer and David R. Bayer are ideally cast as Susan and Peter, who discover they are better together when they are apart-which at first sounds like a theatrical device, but which proves to be the catalyst for plot developments that make the script more accessible and current.

Kraski, so deliciously decadent as the all-knowing, wizened and wise Joann, is sheer perfection (perhaps I'll stop there with all this much-deserved praise I'm heaping upon her) and she is paired elegantly and sweetly with Daron Bruce as her long-suffering, buT Loving husband Larry. Kraski and Bruce, who are longtime friends offstage, create a thoroughly disarming dynamic between their characters that makes their pairing even more successful than expected.

Yet if anyone could possibly steal the show out from under any of these seasoned stage veterans, leave it to the inimitable Megan Murphy Chambers, the most confident and self-possessed comic actress on a Nashville stage, to do it with her portrayal of Amy. With a performance of "Getting Married Today" that makes it seem as if Sondheim wrote the song expressly for her talents, Chambers knocks it out of the ball park. She is ably partnered by Scott Rice as her fiancé Paul, who matches her theatrical fireworks with a grounded performance that is as confident and focused as Chambers'.

Cook's cast is completed by the efforts of Stephanie Brooks and Tara Carney who join Riggs for the seductively and imaginatively staged  "Tick Tock" dance that serves the stage purpose of shooting fireworks and/or raging tides that take the place of overt simulated sex acts in the films of the 1950s.

The sophisticated goings-on in Bobby's life take place in his tastefully decorated Manhattan apartment, which is brought to life through Daniel Sadler's excellent set design, although his detailed depictions of all the various scenes in the show might slow down its pace somewhat. Lynda Cameron Bayer's costume design is equally well-conceived as she clothes her characters in a black and white color palette (with flashes of color from the three women in Bobby's life) that works for the New Yorkers depicted in the musical. Opal Oliva's lighting design helps to focus attention where it needs to be and is fluidly seamless.

Shirley Fleener's choreography is fine, even creative at times, although sometimes it appears incongruously inserted into a musical number. Finally, Wilhelm Peters' music direction of his seven-member orchestra does a good job of recreating Sondheim's memorable score.

Company. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Directed by Paul J. Cook. Musical direction by Wilhelm Peters. Choreography by Shirley Fleener. Presented by Circle Players at The Keeton Theatre, Nashville. Through January 22. For details, visit the website at www.circleplayers.net or call (615) 332-7529. 

pictured: Daron Bruce and Debbie Kraski/photo by Barry A. Noland for The First Night Honors

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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