BWW Reviews: The Ladies Rule in Cabrillo Music Theatre's COMPANY

A noticeably long, drawn-out silence opens Cabrillo Music Theatre's production of COMPANY as 35-year old Robert (Alxander Jon) comes home to his empty New York bachelor pad. It is the final moment of solitude before the coordinated cacophony of voices begins in Nick DeGruccio's sleekly directed revival of Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) and George Furth's (book) 1970 classic. Loaded with unspoken thoughts and full of anticipation, the silence acts like a laser to focus the audience's attention making it a dynamic way to open the show.

In a nutshell, COMPANY is a series of unrelated scenes and songs about marriage that express the good and the bad of relationships written in a variety of musical styles that complement their disparate ideas. The glue that connects them is Robert but scenes still jump around in no particular order. Sondheim himself has said that the musical isn't linear but that the entire three hours takes place in a flash in Robert's mind, much like a momentary reflection on the question of remaining single.

There is irony in the very bones of the piece with few characters saying out loud what they really mean. Dysfunction is a common theme in all of the relationships. Sarah (Elissa Wagner) and Harry's (Michael Andrew Baker) constant bickering dissolves into a hilariously uncomfortable game of one-upmanship that covers their not-so-secret coping mechanisms (he drinks, she eats). But when Robert asks Harry later if he's happy being married he says you're always sorry, always grateful. It's a poignant moment that demonstrates our need for love and connection, no matter how difficult it might be to make a relationship work.

Susan (Elizabeth Eden) and Peter (James Padilla), the perfect couple, tell Robert that although they are continuing to live together, they've recently gotten divorced and couldn't be happier...together. Amy (Shelley Regner) and Paul (Nick Tubbs), on the other hand, are about to be married, if she can get past a seriously funny case of cold feet. A disillusioned Joanne (Tracy Lore) throws sarcastic barbs at her husband, Larry (Paul Babb), who still says he'll never leave her, and a straight-laced Jenny (Heather Dudenbostel) pretends to like smoking pot just to please her husband David (Kevin F. Story).

Although Robert is the central character in COMPANY, Cabrillo's production belongs to the ladies. Regner makes "Getting Married Today" a bona fide showstopper as the crazy, hyperventilating bride who spits out more words than you can believe possible. Sondheim's lyrics are masterpieces of internal dialogue, each one more distinctive and revealing than the next. Lore bites into Elaine Stritch's signature song "Ladies Who Lunch" with unbridled ferocity and Chelsea Emma Franko makes "Another Hundred People" the showpiece you hope it will be. Franko, Jane Papageorge (April) and Aly French (Kathy) are also featured in the girlfriend trio "You Could Drive A Person Crazy," a great little comedy song and dance number about the song and dance that Robert is giving them as he avoids commitment. They have a terrific blend and choreographer Cate Caplin adds some smooth dance moves to go with it.

Much of Caplin's choreography highlights the subtext of DeGruccio's staging by creating a pack vs. lone wolf series of visuals. The ensemble sings, dances, and moves toward Robert as he holds fast to his side of the line. The Act II opening song "Side By Side" builds until it becomes an exciting full-on circus production number that swells to a thrilling climax.

Jon has a lovely voice but not enough presence to match the energy of the women around him. Consequently, his songs become stand and sing moments that don't really connect with the audience nor do they have the impact they should. Musical director Cassie Nickols' orchestra, placed upstage center but in view just beyond the set, does a beautiful job with Sondheim's complicated and quirky score.

DeGruccio stages the musical on a stunning multi-level skeletal set design by Tom Buderwitz. Its steel gray walkways, platforms, and staircases form the framework of Robert's Manhattan apartment building and suggest the rest of the indoor and outdoor locations with only a change of minimalist furniture: a shag rug and bean bag chairs for a living room, a bench for Central Park, a cocktail table for an uptown happy hour. Above are a series of modernist cutouts that represent an abstract New York skyline. Jean-Yves Tessier's lighting defines the changing space and captures the light of specific times of day quite beautifully. More than anything, though, it is Thomas Marquez's costumes and Cassie Russek's hair & makeup that give COMPANY its mod throwback feel.

COMPANY is being presented in the Scherr Forum, the smaller of the two theaters at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and it's a good fit for the show. Music lovers, and especially lovers of Sondheim's exquisitely detailed songs, will find a myriad of emotions hidden in the spaces between the words. Here's to the ladies whose company makes this theatrical birthday party a musical feast.

January 23 - February 8, 2015
Cabrillo Music Theatre
Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
Scherr Forum Theatre
2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks
Tickets: (800) 745-3000

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Pictured above: L-R: Elizabeth Eden (Susan), James Padilla (Peter), Alxander Jon (Robert) and Chelsea Emma Franko (Marta). Photo credit: Ed Krieger

Alxander Jon (Robert) and the company of Company
Shelley Regner (Amy) and Alxander Jon
Jane Papageorge (April) and Alxander Jon
Michael Andrew Baker (Harry), Alxander Jon, and Elissa Wagner (Sarah)
Alxander Jon and Tracy Lore (Joanne)
Kevin F. Story (David), Heather Dudenbostel (Jenny) and Alxander Jon
Alxander Jon and Aly French (Kathy)
Alxander Jon (center) with Tracy Lore, Michael Andrew Baker, Paul Babb, Heather
Dudenbostel, Chelsea Emma Franko, Aly French, James Padilla, Jane Papageorge,
Elizabeth Eden, Shelley Regner, Kevin Story, Nick Tubbs, and Elissa Wagner

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