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BWW Reviews: Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY at Eight O'Clock Theatre

There are a handful of plays that have changed musical theatre as we know it, starting with The Black Crook in 1866. In the next century, Showboat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story and Cabaret had all elevated the genre. But it was Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY, in 1970, that put a mirror up to the middle class and upper middle class audiences. They came to the theatre for sheer escapism...and they wound up watching themselves in the most hilarious, penetrating and meaningful way. The show was a hit, caused debates and catapulted Sondheim into the "Genius Sondheim" we know after almost a decade of notorious flops. It was also the next step in the evolution of musical theatre. And as dated as some of it is--references to Optical Art and the use of the word "grass" for marijuana, for example--it still speaks to our world 45 years later. In fact, during the current, beautifully produced version of COMPANY at Eight O'Clock Theatre in Largo, I overheard the couple sitting next to me whisper to one another while watching the show, "That's us!"

So COMPANY still matters. It also contains some of Sondheim's finest, most incisive lyrics. As anybody reading this probably knows, the show centers around Bobby on his 35th birthday as he re-examines his unmarried life and, in relatively short scenes, responds to his quirky married friends who want to see him married. Eight O'Clock Theatre has created a true winner here--a gorgeous production of the highest quality with performances that I will not soon forget and technical aspects that elevate it way beyond any community theatre fare.

The show starts off expertly, with Bobby (Terry Farley) listening to the (pre-recorded?) messages on his answering machine. I've seen COMPANY done various ways, but I like this opening in particular. It brings out the existential quality of the show--that these crazy married people surrounding Bobby are materialized out of his imagination. It even makes us wonder if the entire birthday party is a figment of Bobby's imagination, a what-if that leads to the various vignettes. It's like the answering machine summoned these couples, who stand expressionless, facing the audience. There's a mist in the air, to give it that dream-like, is-this-really-happening? quality. COMPANY, great as it is, has always been murky in that department. What's up with blowing out the candles in the various versions of Bobby's birthday? Is it all real or isn't it? Director Rocco Morabito has come up with an ingenious way of solving the issue--it's clearer here than in any other version of COMPANY that I have seen.

The first song, "Company," lets us know what kind of show we're in for. And it's stellar at EOT. The harmonies are gorgeous; the blocking miraculous. It's just a glorious piece of singing, acting and staging. And the long note near the end of the song--originally created so the cast could move up an elevator, though most productions like this one don't have that elevator--is gloriously long. In fact, it's the longest note imaginable, longer than in other I've heard in the various versions of COMPANY that I have seen...the breath control of these performers is awe-inspiring.

The set is elegantly minimal, with a white block chair that looks like the throne for an Ice King. Soon various movable furniture pieces, beautifully constructed, zoom across the stage in a sort of furniture dance ("chair-ography" as is mentioned in the program). It's great fun to watch, like we're in a rather odd Disney ride for married couples. The driving band, tight and truly excellent, led by music director Emi Stefanov, is onstage the whole time, which is always a treat.

The lighting by Dalton Hamilton is the best that I have seen in a community theatre show. This is where Eight O'Clock Theatre is ahead of all the rest. It's a beautiful looking production.

And then we have the performances....

Terry Farley is a young-looking Bobby, boyishly handsome. He's puckish, more Neil Patrick Harris than Dean Jones or Raul Esparza. He has a great onstage presence, and he resembles Anthony Michael Hall melded with Aaron Tveit. We have to suspend our disbelief a bit to imagine him in his mid-thirties, but he is a very strong performer in a reactive role, which is extremely hard to play. And he has moments that make the part his own. His responses in "Barcelona" are so real that it's like I heard moments of it for the very first time (his response to mistaking April's name in particular). He also starts "Being Alive" off differently than I've ever heard before. He's very likable, and you can see why the couples are pushing him to find a significant other and settle down.

Although my favorite COMPANY song has been "Someone is Waiting," the most underrated number in the show, it didn't do much for me here. There are so many possibilities, and I think the director, so clever elsewhere, could have done something more with the moment. ("Marry Me a Little," the Act 1 closer, is performed the exact same way, and maybe I'm just looking for a little more variety. It's well done, but I want it to match the excellence of the rest of the show.)

Farley shows he is an incredible actor, but he needs to enunciate a bit more on the terrace scene; when he said the word "terrace" I first thought he said "terrorist."

The couples are brilliantly cast. Couple Number One, Harry and Sarah, are played to the karate-chopping hilt by Sam DiRosa and Amber Phillips. They are a hoot together, and Phillips in particular makes one of the lesser songs of the show, "Poor Baby," suddenly become one of the best. DiRosa is very funny, though I would have preferred a little less channeling of Stephen Colbert's version of Harry, including the red turtle-neck sweater.

As Couple Number Two, Peter and Susan, James Grenelle and Ryan Blood make the most of their parts. I miss the gay banter between Bobby and Peter, but this version doesn't contain that. This is a shame because it answers a lot of very important questions about Bobby. But Grenelle is the standout in all of the group numbers and his timing is spot on.

As the pot-smoking Couple Number Three, David and Jenny, Dan Mason and Sadra Bostick bring down the house. Mason is quite funny and a fine singer, and Bostick is one of the two best in the entire show. Her Jenny is a delight, one of Sondheim's great characters played perfectly. No one can slurp a glass of water as hilariously as she does.

The best performance belongs to Amy Dobbert as Amy the Crazed Bride. Her Amy, bouncing off the walls in her wedding gown, is a work of art; I will watch her anywhere. "Getting Married Today," one of the funniest songs in musical theatre history, is given the A+ treatment here. Jeremy Moranski as Paul, the groom, does quite well, though he's a little older looking than I'm used to for the part. But the song and the scene that follows is all Dobbert's Amy. She is phenomenal, one of the best Amy's (if not the best) that I have had the pleasure to see. She is so strong that it made me wonder if for a moment they should change the title of the show to "Amy!"

The last couple involves Joanne and Larry, Bobby's rich pals, played by Frencesca Guanciale Jay and Ben Taylor. Taylor is incredible in the relatively small part of Larry. He gives him meaning, and we understand why he stays married to that judgmental pistol, Joanne. It was during his scene when the couple next to me said, "That's us!"

Francesca Guanciale Jay's Joanne certainly looks like the rich, bitchy friend of Bobby--this was Elaine Stritch's iconic role. Jay has a wonderful voice, very strong, but it's hard to emerge from the Stirtchian, or even Luponian, shadows with this part. Her "Little Things We Do Together" doesn't have the appropriate punch it needs. She plays the part well enough, but it doesn't go to that next level. Her "Ladies Who Lunch," one of the most famously biting of all Sondheim songs, is well-sung but you would never know it's one of composer's greatest writing feats. It's good, but it's not chill-inducing, the way the best versions of it usually are. I've seen productions where people actually do rise when Joanne screams for them to "Rise!" Jay does a fine job with the song, but there wasn't even a thought of rising to our feet afterwards.

There are also three other great parts, Bobby's girlfriends--Ashlie Johnson as April, Ashlyn Bigley as Kathy and Lily MacKenzie as Marta. This trio shines on "You Can Drive A Person Crazy." It became one of the evening's stunners. It's one of those songs that's usually quite fun but never really one of the standouts. But at EOT, this became one of my favorites of the night.

Ashlie Johnson is a perfect April--the quirky, addle-brained flight attendant who winds up in bed with Bobby. Her monologue about the one-winged butterfly is one of the funniest in any show, and her duet with Farley on the ultimate "morning-after" number, "Barcelona," was simply exquisite.

Ashlyn Bigley is a fine Kathy, and she hits that perfect note in "You Can Drive a Person Crazy." She's also a wonderful dancer. Still, I am not a fan of the "Tick Tock" dance number in any way, and this production proves why. It's clever for the first thirty seconds, and then it goes nowhere. The score sounds more like Burt Bacharach here, not Stephen Sondheim. Let Sondheim be Sondheim and leave Bacharach (whom I also adore) for the easy listening stations. It's just so dated, like watching a PG-rated version of "Love American Style." And to top it off, the number also seemed to have inspired Jonathan Larsen's "Contact," certainly the nadir of Rent.

Lily MacKenzie's Marta is far more uptight looking than I usually like in the part. I find Marta as the ultimate free-spirit, a highly kinetic soul. She's not a hippy per se, but she needs to be quirky, fun-loving. In the EOT production, she comes across as the odd melding of Hermione Granger and an adult Wednesday Addams. And her big, funny scene with Bobby is staged so that she sits much of the time, instead of standing and showing off her New York City electric energy. "Another Hundred People," Marta's big song, usually gives me chills. It's well done in this production, but no chills here.

I love the chorus/stagehands/chair-movers are part of the show, even dancing with Larry in the nightclub scene. However, during the tender "Sorry-Grateful" (well sung by Sam DiRosa, Dan Mason and Ben Taylor), a stagehand takes focus away by moving Harry and Sarah's alcohol tray during the song. It would have been more effective to have this happen a little later when the stage hands are moving other set pieces. "Sorry-Grateful" is such a deep, impassioned number that nothing should take away from it. The overeager stagehand is keeping the show moving, yes, but please not at the expense of one of Sondheim's most touching and underrated songs.

The best song in the production is the Act 2 opener, "Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You." For a second, when the circus tricks began, I thought we were watching Pippin. But the cast nails the number, brilliantly choreographed by Ronnie DeMarco. If you didn't know that Eight O'Clock Theater is the best community theatre in the area, then one look at this song-and-dance number would silence any doubters. THIS is what theatre is all about; the number is better than most professional shows I've seen this year. I was wowed. It was beautiful, bright and energetic, and each couple (along with Bobby) owned every second of it.

Kudos must go to director Morabito and choreographer DeMarco for doing a tough show and doing it right. It all comes together, and even with my nit-picking, it's one of the better community theatre shows I have had the pleasure of seeing.

I've said it several times before, but Eight O'Clock Theatre is head and shoulders above the other community theatres in the Bay Area. Why? Is it because they get the best performers and directors, talented artists who work hard and deliver the goods? Is it because they understand that the audience expects the best and, therefore, they give it to them? Is it because they just know how to do things right--lighting, sets, costumes, all of it top notch? Whatever the reason, they have never ceased to impress me. Don't believe it? Then hurry to COMPANY and see for yourself.

Eight O'Clock Theatre's COMPANY plays thru May 31st at the Largo Cultural Center at 105 Central Park Drive in Largo. For tickets, please call (727) 587-6793.

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