BWW Review: JPAC's COMPANY is Robust with Life and Meaning
Stephen Sondheim's cerebral, minimalist COMPANY might not be an obvious choice for a community theater here in Indonesia where musicals are still often seen as jazz-hands and kicklines, but director Fonnyta Amran and JPAC (Jakarta Performing Arts Community) made it work. The production of COMPANY was as game-changing as its original Broadway counterpart back in the day.
After the golden glam of DREAMGIRLS last year and 2018's boisterous WEST SIDE STORY, JPAC steered to the mature dissemination of relationships and loneliness of COMPANY, the Tony-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book). JPAC's longtime director Fonnyta Amran returned to lead the production.
Though billed as a musical comedy, COMPANY is not at all similar to the archetypical musical. It tells the story of Bobby, a New Yorker man who just turns 35, as he welcomes his 'crazy' married friends -- 5 likewise socialite couples who can't get enough of him as the third-wheeling glue to their relationship -- and their birthday greetings.
That's as clear as the story gets, since the rest of COMPANY is composed of vignettes of Bobby's life and (his at times bizarre) visitations to his friends. We're also privy into his romantic flings with three different women, all of which he keeps strictly casual, despite whatever his words that he's ready for marriage.
It is through these scenes that we learn about Bobby's, his friends, and society's mindset towards marriage, until Bobby finally breaks from his own contradictory thoughts and reaches a revelation. Whether or not audience nowadays would find his ultimate declaration agreeable, it is nevertheless a powerful journey that challenges you into dissecting your own thoughts on relationships.
COMPANY is one of those works that could be interpreted in a myriad of different ways. Sam Mendes' 1995 production was psychedelic and fiery, while the 2006 Broadway revival with Raúl Esparza played subtle and understated.
JPAC and Fonnyta went with a contemporary, almost pop take on the show, settling on a happy middle ground between the illusory realm of Bobby's mind and physical reality. This moderate take was well suited for the theatre-going crowd, as those looking for simple evening entertainment would still be able to digest it, while still giving enough material for those looking to ruminate the weightier themes.
This vision is accomplished by presenting vivid, memorable scenes. As COMPANY's 'story' is unorthodox and nonlinear, the task of conveying the themes fall squarely on the shoulders of the cast. And JPAC's COMPANY owes much to its actors who managed to make each of them shine.
The first of the married couples are the ever-bickering Harry and Sarah. Sarah is played by Ajeng Sharfina, continuing her streak in JPAC after last year's DREAMGIRLS and BLACKBIRD. She plays a caustic Sarah, playing opposite theater newcomer Lerryant Krisdy.
The latter's exasperation at his wife's dismissive attitude is, at times, distressing, making for a relationship with very unbalanced power dynamic. This interpretation could use a touch of tenderness, since Sarah's and Harry's words of endearment can fall as sarcastic due to the couple's persistent intensity.
Nevertheless, the duo have a great back-and-forth dynamic, excellent timing on their verbal sparring, and the always crowd-pleasing karate scene. Lerryant also has a surprisingly powerful voice coming from his slender build, best seen in the realist love anthem "Sorry Grateful'.
While Harry and Sarah represent those couples who stayed together despite the never ending verbal skirmishes, Peter (played by Ian Alden Chin) and Susan (Nuraini Cynthia Dewi) are tasked to portray the other side of the coin. The couple is almost unbearably saccharine-sweet and, in the middle of the show, they get divorced off-stage yet paradoxically still live lovingly together.
If there's one word to describe Ian's take on the character, it's definitely 'big'. The American-born actor moves big and speak in a consistently animated and jovial manner. Overall, it creates a very distinctive and somewhat exaggerated, though always entertaining, approach to the character. This culminates in the scene where Bobby rebuffs the now-divorced Peter's sudden romantic advances; this heartbreaking moment is usually played straight but here Ian goes for the more comedic side of dramedy.
Playing opposite him is the theater newcomer Nuraini. In the original production (and, indeed, most other productions), Susan is played as a Southern belle type: well-mannered, affable, and, of course, speaks with a twang. Here, she is recontextualized as a Javanese noblewoman with the accompanying accent. This affectation, more familiar to the mostly-Indonesian audience, was very well-received and gave her plenty of charm.
When together, the two of them make for a most adorable pair of divorcees, with Peter's cute tender kisses and Susan's prim-and-proper mannerism the cherries on top. Both actors also could hold their own in the vocal department, though sadly neither have solo songs. They might not be the most nuanced characters of the play, but they always light up the stage whenever they're on.
The next couple is the 'opposites attract' archetype couple: the domineering David and 'confessed square' Jenny, played by JPAC returnee Michael Lay and another JPAC newcomer Angelica Heidy, respectively. Their scene consists of them smoking weed, a gut-bustingly hilarious scene full of witty lines by George Furth. Heidy's acting of Jenny's first-time partaking in ganja was comedy gold, with perfect pauses and speed-ups as the grass hits.
As his usually uptight wife cusses left and right like a drunken sailor, David keeps his cool and talks to Bobby about how Jenny sometimes likes things for him, giving yet another insight on marriage to the perpetual bachelor. The role is played much more down-to-earth by Michael, creating a very welcome balance and contrast. Despite the pot-related shenanigans, they are one of the most realistic couples in the production.
It should also be noted that Jenny's soprano in "Getting Married Today" is absolutely stunning. With her standing in front of one of the glass panels, emulating ecclesiastical stained glass, it gives the scene an ethereal feel to it, which quickly gets rebuked by the next couple's scene. Namely, Paul and Amy.
Paul is played by Giandra Hartajaya, who played the lead character of Bram in ONROP!, one of the pioneers of the recent resurgence of modern Indonesian musicals. And his soon-to-be wife Amy is played by JPAC mainstay Wenny Kumalasari, already renowned for her comedic turns as Rosalia in WEST SIDE STORY and Lorrell Robinson in DREAMGIRLS.
One of Company's most famous numbers is "(Not) Getting Married Today", a frenetic and frenzied patter song sung by Amy as she frets over her upcoming marriage to Paul. Here, Wenny delivers with a very high energy performance as she pleads for the audience (standing in for the marriage guests) to leave, frantically pacing down the stage and back again to laughter and applause.
Paul, on his part, is the perfect rock. He's romantic, sweet, and understanding, the perfect complement to Amy. Giandra played the role very well, likely leaving many audience members infatuated with his nurturing presence. His powerful and skillfully-controlled voice also makes it the perfect duet to Wenny's machine-gun singing, conquering the Sondheim number with notable ease.
However, Amy could come across as overly shouty at times and might tire audience if the scene were to go on for too long. Thankfully, as Amy finally goes through with marrying Paul despite her own protestations, giving Bobby the lesson that commitment can be illogical and self-contradictory and that's perfectly alright, the scene is finished, having accomplished its intention without overstaying its welcome.
The final couple is the ostensibly richest and maturest of them all, Joanne and her third husband Larry. Both are played by JPAC longtimers, Ade Rianom and Hans de Waal, respectively. Joanne is bitter, often scathing, but deeply cares for Bobby in a way nobody else does. Larry acts as Joanne's unlikely moral anchor, as he can see the goodness in Joanne that she herself couldn't.
Joanne in particular is a celebrated role, with Broadway legends like Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, and Barbara Walsh having stepped into her designer shoes. There really was no other choice than Ade Rianom, who had nailed the notoriously difficult role of Effie White in JPAC's 2018 production of DREAMGIRLS.
It seemed impossible to stand out among a cast of greats, but Ade's Joanne was the most authentic of them all. She was so delectable in the role that even a simple chatter about her first husband could send chills down one's spine from the richness and seemingly effortless elegance of her acting.
But what everyone really waits for is the show-stopping number "Ladies Who Lunch", a self-deprecating ode to the shallowness of the metropolitan life.
Ade's interpretation was an absolutely ravishing tour-de-force. And her astounding vocal prowess is matched by her capability to inject each word with intent. Every turn of phrase was dripping Joanne's suppressed emotions. She and Fonnyta also knew how to draw the audience's attention, by directly addressing them as clubgoers staring at her tirade before the song started, and climaxing in Joanne's roars for the people to rise - it was scary and uncomfortable, perfectly mirroring Joanne's state of mind.
Hans de Waal's Larry brings the much-needed gentle warmth to tone down the intensity. In a one-on-one conversation, he told Bobby about how he saw his mother in Joanne and how she fascinates him everyday, giving yet another piece of the puzzle that is Bobby's mind.
Other than these crazy married people, Bobby is also involved with three different women in his casual dating life, which rings just as true today with the advent of dating apps. The first of these is April the air stewardess, played by Desmonda Cathabel.
She's bubbly, sexy, and not too bright, a departure from Desmonda's usual ingenue (DREAMGIRLS' Deena Jones) or grittier (WEST SIDE STORY's Anita) roles. It is a great joy to see her playing something she isn't really known for and she did quite well, giving comedic emphasis to certain lines (particularly her giddy 'Okay' in the song "Barcelona") for a fresh take on the role. Though her role was rather small, she didn't pull any punches in the aforementioned song, employing vocal techniques to give "Barcelona" a rarely seen quality to it.
The second of Bobby's flings is the modest and sweet girl-next-door Kathy. Another JPAC newcomer, Windy Mulia Liem puts every last second of her meager stage time to good use. She exudes a feminine appeal that makes it all the more heartbreaking when she and Bobby confesses their willingness to marry one another, only after Kathy is to return to Cape Cod and marry someone there. Her beautiful, bright singing voice (best heard in the very fun number "You Could Drive A Person Crazy", sung by the three flings) leaves you wanting more.
And the last of the flings is the eccentric urbanite Marta. In a suprising casting move, the role is played by the androgynous actor Micha Pardede. Though it is not a stunt casting (as it was not particularly publicized in COMPANY promotional materials) and it's made all the more obvious as he transcends the cross-casting by making a one-of-a-kind Marta. Micha's Marta is a ball of energy, buzzing every which way with such infectious confidence. Though his rendition of the notoriously challenging "Another Hundred People" is quite on point, it is during his dialogue with Bobby that he truly shines. He makes every line counts, resulting in many laughs.
And, of course, there is the man himself, Robert a.k.a. Bobby. As the role that ties the whole production together, it is a role that presents an immense challenge. The show is about him and his thoughts and insecurities. He's the one who interacts with the entourage of colorful Manhattanite characters, going in and out of scenes that might or might not take place in his own mind.
Furthermore, with a cast full of excellent actors, should the lead character fail to rise up to the challenge, it would leave the whole show flat and unsatisfying. The man bearing this responsibility is one Jhony Johannis. A wedding MC and singer, COMPANY also marks his debut in JPAC.
Jhony's Bobby successfully encapsulates the many facets of the character. He could portray the easygoing, amicable front that makes him irresistible to the married couples. He was flabbergasted at Marta, regretful on Kathy, and flirty with April. It was such a great theatrical experience watching him donning these different masks, until the point the mask shatters under the unbearable pressure of his new discoveries he found through his experiences with everyone else. At the terminal song of the show, "Being Alive", we finally see him vulnerable and bare, crying and shouting his internal revelation. And he's a powerhouse singer, to boot. If there's one thing that could improve his final song, it's to give more fluctuation to emotion as there's a lot of room for exploration in Sondheim's heartrending lyrics and melody. Still, it managed to end the show with a bang.
Though each of the cast is brilliant and nearly anyone could be the audience's favorite character, but COMPANY works just as well as an ensemble piece. The opening song, "Company", is a really fun way to be introduced to these characters and see how Bobby interacts with each of them. He greets them differently, from warm embraces to genteel kisses, and we can see a lot of personality in every interaction. And the harmonies (trained and polished by vocal director Jeremiah Purwoto) are astounding on their own, as it is one of Sondheim's most tricky works to perform.
"Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You" is another highlight, as the couples sing and dance (Elhaq Latief lent his choreographic talent once again) about their dependency on Bobby to become the glue to their marriage. It is here that we get an obvious hint of Bobby's nothingness. It seems like he exists only by playing third wheel to these couples, becoming whatever they need him to be. Thus it is very telling when, near the end of the song, he tries to do a little couple tap dance routine like his friends did earlier, only to find nobody under the spotlight.
The flings' songs, "You Could Drive A Person Crazy", also deserves a special mention, for it showcases the three flings together and how they criticize Bobby's lack of commitment in a very fun, jazzy way. The way each woman girl moves accentuates their character, with a fun little detail being April's airline-safety-instruction-inspired gestures. As Marta is played by a man, the "doo doo doo doo doo" part is adjusted so that the final note goes low and deep, making excellent use of the unorthodox casting.
All of COMPANY's numbers, the crowd-pleasing groups ones and the first-rate ballads, are elevated further by the stage design (by Fonnyta's regular collaborators Cahaya Lituhayu and Reigina Tjahaya). The main set pieces are standing, rolling panels with rectangular 'glass' panes of various shapes and colors. These multifunctional panels stand for Bobby's mind, creating rooms, barriers, or openings, while casting him and the other cast in beautiful kaleidoscopes of colors (amplified by the subtle but effective lighting by Winson Chaivin).
The costume and make-up design (by theater debutante Shannon Tamara) is particularly smart, creating a tastefully distinctive look for each couple and character. It is a common COMPANY problem that the couples are hard to differentiate, because they dress too similarly. Here, you can easily tell who's who. Of particular note are Susan's blue batik get-up (another nod to her Javanese origin) and Kathy's lovely off-white dress. It is unfortunate that the mic pack had to be put on the outside of Joanne's black, opulent outfit, due to technical reasons - it can be very distracting.
There is also a welcome surprise from the technical side of the production. The sound is crystal clear. Problematic sound engineering is overwhelmingly common in Indonesian productions, but it is nowhere to be found in JPAC's COMPANY. It makes for a notably luxurious experience as we could hear JPAC's partner, TRUST Orchestra, play every note of Sondheim's intricate melodies faultlessly (led by Music Director/Conductor Nathania Karina), as well as the cast's singing and dialogue.
Though COMPANY is a relatively niche and risky undertaking for JPAC, the resulting show pays off in dividends, especially artistically. JPAC has proven that mature-themed shows do have a place in Indonesia's blossoming musical industry; musicals can be both entertaining AND thought-provoking. It parallels Bobby's own discovery, that maturity means taking risks to get something priceless. For Bobby, it means finding company; for JPAC, it means finding COMPANY.