BWW Reviews: Unique COMPANY at the Pittsburgh Public Theater
As I attended the press performance of Company at the Pittsburgh Public Theater this week, I had a brief chat at intermission with "Ang," the blogger who runs The Burgh, Exposed. She's a Lloyd Webber aficionado, and I'm a Sondheim guy, but the two of us agreed on two things: first, that this production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1970 musical Company was extremely entertaining; second, that something about it felt different than usual. The story was the same as it always was: a year in the life of upper-middle-class bachelor Bobby, who spends all his time with his married couple friends and the three women he dates off and on. The songs were the same, from "Company" all the way to "Being Alive." The tone, however, was unlike any production of Company I had seen before, and I left the theatre pondering how I felt about it. Two days later, I'm still not sure.
"Something different" is the order of the day in this production, beginning with the design elements. Ted Pappas, director and choreographer of this presentation, has distinguished his staging from most others, which either set the story in the present day or in the "late Mad Men era" of the tail end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies, when the musical first premiered. Pappas, perhaps taking inspiration from the all-caps "NOW" listed for the time in the script, has built a deliberately hazy, enjoyably anachronistic time zone for this production. Bobby's flat, and the apartments his friends live in, feel very modern in a retro way, with influences of Seventies and Eighties decor alongside modern curved lines and white-neon Apple chic in James Noone's clever unit set. Bobby and his married friends are dressed in a similarly everything-old-is-new-again fashion: no one looks out of place for 2014 New York, but no one would have looked especially out of place on Madison Avenue in the Bacharach years. The costume designs for Bobby's three girlfriends run the gamut more extremely. April the flight attendant, played with a delightful blend of sensuality and weirdness by Lara Hayhurst, looks straight out of a period piece in her skimpy red flight attendant's uniform, while Hannah Shankman's Marta is a twenty-first century hipster.
The biggest change from the usual in Pappas's Company is simultaneously the best part of the production and the single element that works the least: Bobby, as played by Jim Stanek. Stanek, as the perpetual bachelor, is the life of the party in every scene he appears in. Singing beautifully, acting convincingly and never missing an opportunity for a laugh, his Bobby is a genuine delight to be around, and it is obvious why couples as diverse as Bobby's circle of friends would want to keep him perpetually in their lives. Never before has any Bobby seemed so well adjusted, so... happy. But does this happier Bobby work? Central to the play's loose, non-linear plot is the notion that Bobby is in something of a midlife crisis, and that he is growing tired of life as a third wheel. But Stanek's Bobby, and Pappas's direction overall, gives us no sense of this ambivalence, irony or darkness. Bobby, for the first time since his character "birth" in 1970, seems to be having a damned good time. Even the Act 2 opener, "Side By Side/What Would We Do Without You" is played straight, without the irony and bitterness that usually tinges the song. Rather than a show-stopping hymn to Bobby as the eternal third wheel, the song plays in Pappas's staging as genuine and good-hearted. Here, in a somewhat extended dance sequence, we get to sneak a peek into Bobby's fantasies- Bobby as star of the show, Bobby as football hero, Bobby as maestro, and in one visual gag, Bobby as literal "linchpin" of his circle of friends. Only at the end of the number, when Bobby has no dance partner and promptly leaves the celebration, does any hint of the song's usual wry humor sneak in.
This uncharacteristic levity leaves the moments of Bobby's introspective music seeming somewhat out of character. When Bobby has his climactic moment of introspection, which leads to him singing "Being Alive" and admitting that "alone is alone... not alive," Stanek plays the moment as an alcohol-induced moment of emotional vulnerability, rather than the culmination of a life on the fringes. Peter, played by Paul Binotto, half-kids Bobby that "the unlived life is not worth examining," but in Stanek and Pappas's hands, Bobby's life seems extremely lived, perhaps even more so than all his "good and crazy married friends."
The supporting cast surrounding Stanek shine in their star turns, but the arch tone and dry humor of George Furth's book means that Stanek's Bobby, upbeat and full of bonhomie, sometimes seems like he is in a different, but certainly enjoyable, show. Nancy Anderson and Benjamin Howes, as Sarah and Harry, begin the show on a fine comic note with their portrayal of an overindulgent couple who love locking horns with each other, and Judy Blazer as Joanne achieves the difficult task of making a character who loves to bitch come off as something other than bitchy by nature. Her Joanne is a lovable grouch, the anti-Bobby who loves bursting people's bubbles just as much as this Bobby seems to love blowing them up again. Among Bobby's girlfriends, the aforementioned Lara Hayhurst shines as the affably peculiar April, who is somehow equal parts sexy and genuinely strange. The role of April can easily become just another stereotypical dumb blonde, but Hayhurst gives her character an inner life and unique presence that round out the more predictable elements of the character.
All in all, the back-and-forth tone never manages to fully derail the show. Although Jim Stanek is an unconventional Robert, rarely has the role been sung better, and the supporting cast, under Pappas's skilled but equally unconventional direction, keep things moving at a sprightly and energetic pace, with more laughs than two and a half hours of CBS sitcoms. Ted Pappas's Company is lighter than most, but this kinder and gentler take on the show and its characters may be the perfect remedy for anyone who found the John Doyle revival too dour and cold. After all, when you've got friends like this... who needs F*R*I*E*N*D*S?