BWW Review: MAD Theatre of Tampa Presents Stephen Sondheim's Iconic COMPANY at the Shimberg
"Should there be a marital squabble/Available Bob'll/Be there with the glue..." --Bobby's friends in "Side by Side by Side" from COMPANY
Here's a question to keep you up at night: What is the greatest Stephen Sondheim musical? There are quite a bit to choose from. The brilliant Sweeney Todd is often considered his masterpiece, with perhaps Sunday in the Park with George and Follies following close behind. Into the Woods is certainly his most popular. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his most hilarious. A Little Night Music, his loveliest. Assassins is the one that comes closest to his original conception. Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures and Passion are his most underrated. And we have the upcoming Bunuel to look forward to as well.
So where does that leave COMPANY?
COMPANY, which first opened 47 years ago on Broadway, is certainly Sondheim's most groundbreaking work and arguably his most important. But is it his best? After seeing a performance of it by MAD Theatre of Tampa, I think the show comes close to threatening Sweeney Todd for that coveted crown, even with some issues that popped up in this particular production. Watching it anew, you cannot argue its gorgeous lyrics and score (not to mention George Furth's razor-sharp book that could almost work without the songs but obviously wouldn't be as celebrated), and it perfectly spotlights the life of 1970's New York City.
It is a testament to the show's strength that, in 2017, I saw couples tapping each other in acknowledgement while watching it, pointing to one another, lip-syncing "That's us!" during the show. It hasn't dated much (especially since "Tick Tock," the most dated number in the show and by far the worst, thankfully has been expunged from this version). COMPANY holds a mirror to the upper middle class audience that is watching, and time has not diminished its laser-like accuracy or its humor. It's one grand piece of theatre, and the intimate surroundings of the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center work in its favor with the MAD production.
COMPANY centers on Bobby, the show's semi-narrator, a 35-year-old bachelor who isn't ready for emotional commitment with anybody. It's his birthday, and the musical opens in his NYC apartment, with his married friends present, and he's ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake. We suddenly see his life in fragments, his life with each couple, with each girlfriend. It's very funny and poignant, and it still emotionally punches you as if it had been written yesterday, not during the era of Richard Nixon and Talking Viewmasters.
Bobby is without question one of the hardest characters in musical theatre to capture, to play correctly--mixing his laissez faire attitude with the ability to drive the story. Unlike Sweeney, he has no bombast, no moments of sweat, no real motivation (imagine Sweeney without the need for revenge). He's not just a blank page; he's a blank book. "You may be the one constant in this world of variables," a friend tells Bobby. He's a cypher, so laid back that he recedes into the background. "Knock, knock, is anybody there?" sing his girlfriends, who soon compare him to a zombie. So it's tricky to play this elusive "lump" and to make him memorable. What is it about Bobby that drives the ladies crazy and makes him a favorite third wheel to his married friends?
To answer that question, MAD Theatre is lucky to have Ricky Marenda as Bobby. You may remember Marenda as Moritz, a standout in their production of Spring Awakening last fall. He's even better here. Boyish, handsome, charismatic, and a sort of combination of Sal Mineo and Raul Esparza, he has it all. Yet he's so laid back that it's almost like he doesn't even walk--he floats. It's to Marenda's credit that such a recessive character can still move the show forward and make us care for his plight, which is his emotional detachment. Sure, he likes a good time, but does he yearn for anything more than that? It's a mostly reactive role, but Marenda is very real and very likable. You understand why these New Yorkers focus their lives on and around him.
It also helps that Marenda has an astounding singing voice. It's not predictably show-offy; you never get the impression that he's trying to strain his vocal cords into a wall-rattling belt. He just sings. And he does so beautifully. His voice--smooth and powerful at once--induces gooseflesh. His three big numbers--"Someone Is Waiting," "Marry Me a Little" and the iconic "Being Alive"--are given a first-class treatment here. It's safe to say that he's the finest Bobby I've seen in several years.
Many of the wacky and not-so-wacky friends of Bobby match Marenda's excellence. Lindsay Yarbrough makes a delightfully clueless April, the flight attendant who winds up in Bobby's bed. The April-Bobby duet, "Barcelona," focusing on the "morning after" in all of its uncomfortable glory, is one of Sondheim's best. Unfortunately, sound issues plagued the production, and one of those most affected was Yarbrough, whose microphone would be on, then off, then on. It's to the actress's credit that these blips did not throw her off. And her monologue about a wounded butterfly hit all the right notes.
Kelsey Ehrensberger is a good, down-to-earth Kathy, Bobby's true love who leaves the city to get married. And Jessica Moraton plays Marta, Bobby's unconventional girlfriend, for all it's worth. Her "Another Hundred People," Sondheim's ultimate New York number, proved quite strong. However, her costume did not match the character's freewheeling personality.
The show started off rather disconnected--something seemed off--and sound issues (that were mostly fixed at intermission) may have thrown some of the actors off early on. But thankfully the ensemble retrieved its bearings sometime during the opening "Company" number.
The first couple to be in the spotlight with Bobby are Harry and Sarah, energetically (and then some) played by Bill Rolon and DeAnna McMahan. They are a troubled married duo, with drinking and overeating problems. McMahan is a natural comedienne as the karate-chopping Sarah; I love how she says "I love you" to her husband with a brownie still stuffed in her mouth. And Rolon does a remarkable job with one of Sondheim's most poignant songs, "Sorry-Grateful."
Justen Batten and Jen Martin are fine as Peter and Susan, the couple who find true happiness only after divorce.
Lisa Prieto gets the show-stopping "Getting Married Today," Amy the Bride's insane, hysterical breakdown song with such lines as "I telephoned my analyst about it/And he said to see him Monday/But by Monday I'll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage..." She brilliantly rips through perhaps the most difficult song in the Sondheim canon (to a loud ovation, even during the number), but oftentimes the audience had difficulty understanding some of the classic lines in the patter, even those of us who know the song quite well. Still, Prieto is exceptionally funny, with spot-on timing, and she scores big with her scene. Her groom, Peter Belk's Paul, unfortunately could barely be heard, and this obviously had to do with the microphone issues in Act 1.
Francesca Guanciale Jay is an ideal Joanne, the part of Bobby's acerbic rich gal pal originally played (and written for) Elaine Stritch and more recently by Patti LuPone. Jay looks a lot like Lupone's Joanne, and even gets some of her mannerisms down. Her "The Ladies Who Lunch" was all her own, however, and it was thrilling. As Larry, her husband, Jay Morgan is also strong. I enjoyed his Batusi with an audience member during the club scene; I wonder if this was an ode to the late great Adam West, TV's Batman, who died earlier in the week. Don't put anything past the MAD Theatre gang; remember, this is the same group who added a "Cup Song" reference in "La Vie Boheme" in their production of Rent a couple of years back.
My favorite couple were Jenny and David, the pot-smoking pair played by Heather Lynn Mendoza and R. James Faurote. They brought their uproarious "getting stoned" scene, the funniest in the show, to a giddy high.
Two directors tackled this seminal musical, Anthony Paul Gilkinson and Donald B. Holt, Jr., and both should be saluted for a job well done. COMPANY is a difficult show, but it's also entertaining as hell. The choreography was oftentimes quite clever, including a Tug of War with Bobby as the rope in the title number.
Dwayne A. Cline's set is appropriately minimal, with an oversized fold-out screen that includes a map of NYC. Anthony Vito's lighting design also works well for the show. Best of all is the magic of music director Deborah D. Lynch. The vocals are stirring, and the band quite wonderful, bringing that brilliant Sondheim score to life. Lynch conducts and is on piano, and the rest of the driving band includes Michael Batton on guitar, Maribeth Radkte on violin and viola, Bobby DeAngelis on reeds, Michael Smith on trumpet, Mike Van De Mark on the electric bass, and the stalwart Burt Rushing on drums.
Although this production of COMPANY is not perfect, it showcases an amazing musical that is still relevant, that still resonates, after nearly a half century. And you don't have to be married to enjoy what I now consider Sondheim's second place masterpiece. Second place in this case is not a bad thing. There's no shame in being second fiddle to the brilliant Sweeney Todd, is there?
The M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa's production of COMPANY plays thru July 2nd at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, please call (800)-955-1045 [toll free] or (813) 229-STAR.