The Little Things They Do Together
Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre has had a somewhat rocky relationship with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim since David Armstrong was appointed Artistic Director.Recent bright spots have included a solid production of Gypsy starring Judy Kaye and an admirable A Little Night Music with a stellar cast including Robert Cuccioli and Seattle treasure Suzanne Bouchard.Recent disappointments have included a thoroughly unfunny Forum and a rather clinical Sweeney Todd (which opened simultaneously with the more innovative Broadway revival).Coincidentally, the 5th's current Company is playing while another reconceived production of the same musical is set to open on Broadway next month.This terrific Company is the 5th's finest Sondheim to date. A stellar cast full of a who's who of Broadway and local actors make this a definite must see. This also happens to be the 5th's best homegrown production in recent memory.
One couldn't ask for a better cast than the one assembled by Armstrong.This production truly gets what Company is all about: the ups/downs of marriage and the fast pace of New York City. Perhaps Sondheim's tightest show (then again, aren't they all?), Company is probably best known for the standards "Being Alive" and "Side by Side" and the career defining performance of Elaine Stritch. This Company manages to nearly erase all past impressions, creating something that is simultaneously classic and refreshing.With the recent influx in reconceived Sondheim, it is nice to see a more traditional interpretation.We see marital squabbles, heartbreaking yearning, and a city fleshed out nicely by James Wolk's functional scenic design (with more than one nod to Boris Aronson's original work).
The story of serial bachelor Bobby, his circle of married friends, and a trio of potential matches features a flawless Sonheim score , with a great deal of pastiche numbers integrated into George Furth's book.Though Sondheim receives most of the attention for the genius of Company, Furth's contributions are crucial to this show's strength. Company often functions as a musical play.A good amount of scene work happens between each of Sondheim's songs. This is a musical unlike anything before or after it. Armstrong's Company truly gets the nuances; thanks to the presence of Broadway regulars, stunning vocalists, and Seattle's finest straight play actors in rare musical theatre appearances.
Fresh off of the (already) legendary disaster that was Lestat, Hugh Panaro is a fantastic Bobby.Panaro brings his big voice and solid acting chops to one of the trickiest roles in the cannon. Though the recent additions to the text are not included here (which gave Bobby an extra song and a healthy dose of bisexuality ), Mr. Panaro constructs Bobby as a tortured soul eager to find purpose and companionship.This Bobby is less central than most, with Armstrong wisely opting to make him more observer than participant.This conceit works like gangbusters. Panaro offers quiet moments of insight, spots of deep pain, and stunning interpretations of his big solo numbers.His "Someone is Waiting" and "Being Alive" are highlights of this exquisetly accomplished performance. Panaro is clearly the leader of Broadway's dwindling supply of great leading men.
A nearly perfect company of classy, polished, thoughtful performers surrounds Panaro. Nine's Shelly Burch plays against type as the boozy Joanne (aka Elaine Stritch).Her Joanne is more vulnerable than most.Burch delivers a heavenly "Ladies Who Lunch", mastering the tough tasks that all recent Joanne's have failed at miserably. Burch and Panaro work hard to establish history, resulting in a haunting finale more layered than most. Wicked's Kendra Kassebaum's (fantastic as Petra in 5th's Night Music) wonderful Amy is more thoughtful and controlled than most. Absent are the safe/erratic choices, with Kassebaum taking the smart route in her focused and determined reading of "Getting Married Today". Armstrong's dual placement of Joanne and Amy as Bobby's lost loves is quite poignant.The chronically underused Bobbi Kotula offers an aggressively tortured Sarah (with a divine vocal reading of "Poor Baby"). The great Ann Allgood, fresh from her career defining performance in ACT's Miss Witherspoon, offers a delightfully erratic Jenny. Her pot smoking scene with Panaro and the always reliable David Drummond (who reveals a great voice) is the comic highlight of the night.Susannah Mars' perfectly sung Susan is also a strong presence throughout.This Company benefits from its focus on the ladies of the story.
Billie Wildrick offers a tentative and thoughtful April. As Bobby's main love interest, Wildrick manages to balance the dimmer aspects of the character with a glow that is quite palpable. As always, Wildrick is in fine voice, delivering the tricky "Barcelona" with unrivaled reflection.In yet another La Chanze role (do Ragtime 5th Avenue, she's your Sarah), Lisa Estridge stops the show with her tough-as-nails Marta and a full voiced "Another Hundred People".
The only misfires of the night come from Daniel C. Levine (in yet another unfocused performance) as Amy's fiancée Paul and Anna Lauris' forgettable Kathy (Bobby's 3rd girl). To give Lauris credit, the cutting of Kathy's dance (meant to take place during Bobby and April's lovemaking) doesn't give her much to do. Lauris (who danced a fantastic Lola in Damn Yankees) is certainly capable of pulling off the solo originally fashioned for Donna McKechnie. There are a few instances like this where Armstrong fails to utilize the full talents of his actors. There are the usual peculiar Armstrong choices. A bow at the end of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy", the misplaced use of the music specific elevator, pointless 70's grinding, disco lights (we get it, it's the 70's), and Bobby's face plastered on the musical instruments in "Side by Side" often take you out of this nearly perfect production.
Complaints aside, the cast creates a tight ensemble full of glorious vocals and spot on acting. Their work in (perhaps) the most difficult opening number ever written (thanks in great part to the accomplished musical direction of Ian Eisendrath) is simply amazing. This is a Company for the ages. This is musical theatre at its best. This is why we love Sondheim.With this production, 5th Avenue has brightened its future as one of the leading producers of regional musicals.
Company runs at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre through November 5th. It will be followed by the Northwest Premiere of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. For ticket visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org.
Top: Hugh Panaro and Company
Middle: Panaro as Bobby and Kendra Kessebaum as Amy
Bottom: Shelly Burch as Joanne
All Photos by Chris Bennion
From This Author Robbie Wachs