LOS ANGELES TIMES

 

May 21, 2004

 

THEATER REVIEW

 

 

This 'Company' accepted

 

Social anachronisms don't carry the play into the present day, but the music and the wit transcend chronology.

 

 

By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times

 

You've come a long way, Bobby-baby.

 

The 1970 premiere of "Company" represented a full-scale assault on two venerable American institutions, marriage and the musical theatre--a hardly coincidental pairing, since the conventional musical-comedy plot has always been essentially an elaborate ritual designed to unite boy and girl. With "Company," librettist George Furth and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim dropped not only the curtain clinch but the very crutch of a plot altogether.

 

The show is now nearly as old as its central figure, and from Massachusetts to "Urinetown," neither marriage nor the musical is what it was.

 

Singlehood has changed its stripes, too: Today a tasteful, urbane, persistently eligible 35-year-old male wouldn't be an emotional cripple, pitied and envied by his married friends, as is Bobby. He'd be a jet-setting metrosexual who'd give the "Queer Eye" crew a run for its money.

 

Director David Lee's bright, uneven new staging for Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert plays the show straight, as if it's still headline news rather than a bona fide period piece. It uses updates from Sam Mendes' 1995 London production, also employed by Scott Ellis for the Broadway revival of the same year, which incorporate such modern marvels as answering machines messages and cordless phones but retain dialogue about swingers versus "squares."

 

That may be why the unabashedly groovy approach of last year's excellent production at L.A.'s 99-seat Knightsbridge Theatre, complete with bell bottoms and puka shells, somehow made "Company" seem newer, and fresher, than this half-update.

 

Lee's version does have the considerable asset of music director Gerald Sternbach's tight, snappy onstage orchestra knocking Sondheim's score out of the park.

 

And Lee has an ensemble, artfully cast by Bruce H. Newberg, to step up with a series of generous star turns and occasionally function as a real company, giving the show's frequent grouped scenes an engaging pseudo-amateur abandon in Kay Cole's goofy choreography.

 

Still, this feels less like a true revival, in the sense of bringing new life to a classic, than a reasonably noteworthy rendition.

 

Glossing the show's age is not the only slightly off-key choice that brings this "Company" short of triumph. As the indecisive protagonist Bobby, whose single status both annoys and animates his married friends, the handsome, supple-voiced Christopher Sieber gives a particularly dark, despairing reading.

 

This is partly a danger that comes with the territory--the role contains more than its share of show-stopping soliloquoys and interior monologues--and partly a case of overselling Bobby's denial.

 

Sieber doesn't sketch a carefree bachelor who gradually wakes up to the emptiness of his life as a perpetual third wheel; he's feeling it from the word go, as his gaggle of friends and lovers assemble to beseech en masse, "Bobby, come on over for dinner," and to remind him, "We loooooooove you." Sieber never quite looks like he returns the sentiment.

 

The show's second-act opener, the ironically showbizzy "Side by Side by Side," essentially repeats this image of mass, hectoring codependence but with an inspired difference: Bobby's taken a drug, so that his friends' escalating entreaties take the shape of a kind of vaudeville nightmare.

 

It's this sunny phantasm that conveys the show's signature brand of brittle fun most convincingly, with Cole's choreography hitting the right mix of soft-shoe sheen and talent-show moxie. And it's Sieber's most relaxed, amused and therefore dashing moment.

 

The actors are mostly great where it counts. As Amy, the reluctant bride whose breathless patter song "Getting Married Today" is one of the theater's great mad scenes, Jean Louisa Kelly nails the character's neurotic flicker.

 

Judith Light makes a light meal of the acerbic New York broad Joanne before sinking her teeth into a ferocious rendition of the bitter cocktail "The Ladies Who Lunch."

 

The show's other bravura moment is its antic ode to big-city transience, "Another Hundred People," which Deborah Gibson lends a commandingly brassy sound. And Sieber gives the finale, the soaring quasi-affirmation "Being Alive," the dramatic arc his overall performance misses.

 

The show does have another big solo, often wisely cut but unfortunately restored here: the erotic "Tick-Tock" dance, for which the gamely flailing Cady Huffman lacks only a pole.

 

Amy Pietz sweetly underplays the ditzy stewardess April; Sharon Lawrence and Scott Waara make a recognizably competitive couple; Josh Radnor is affecting as Amy's fiance, Paul; Richard Kline makes a droll foil for Joanne's acidic barbs, and Anastasia Barzee has a lovely coloratura.

 

But the actor who gives the show its most authentic moments is chubby, impassive Kevin Chamberlin, as a husband who tries to explain to Bobby his married contentment. "Marriage gives youâ what?" he says, staring off into space. Chamberlin gives that pause an eloquent blankness.

 

He's also the character who must call his wife a "square," which not even Chamberlin can sell. It's not that the insights of "Company" into the fraught fragility of human relationships aren't universal, even timeless; it's just that putting a slightly dated show in ill-fitting contemporary drag only distracts us from those insights.

 

As a chance to hear one of the theatre's most accomplished scores, peppered with some of its more incisively witty writing, this "Company" makes fine company for the evening. We'll leave it to another revival to know us too well and ruin our sleep.

 

"Company," Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert at the UCLA Freud Playhouse, UCLA. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Ends June 6. $55-65. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.