Sondheim’s Company still kicking at 50

Culture Theatre

Langham Court takes on aging grown-up musical with fresh tone and timing

Image via langhamtheatre.ca

Fragile egos, food fetishes, and empty flings collide this month in Langham Court Theatre’s revival of Company, the enduringly cynical 1970 musical comedy from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. Centring around the 35th birthday of Bobby, a confirmed but conflicted bachelor so full of hot air that he can’t blow out the candles on his cake, the play offers a firmly ambivalent take on both marriage and single life.

Hailed as one of the first great grown-up musicals, Company has aged. One recent London reproduction of the show presents bachelor-hero Bobby as a bachelorette, flipping the script on the dated social and sexual mores of the original. Heather Jarvie’s revival of the Broadway classic 50 years on works with Sondheim and Furth’s script unaltered — but some careful changes in tone and visual texture have left it both familiar and refreshing.

Vaughn Naylor plays Bobby, the leading man, to mixed effect. Despite his superb tenor and his languid grace, Naylor’s portrayal of the hopeless but magnetic bachelor is sterile at times; his overblown expressions fit the disingenuous warmth he directs at his adoring married friends but fail to convey his underlying loneliness and doubt.

If two’s company and three’s a crowd, this play’s cast is a throng — fourteen players and four musicians would make navigating Langham’s limited stage space difficult, if not for Geoff Malcolm’s fine choreography.

As the name suggests, however, Company is more focused on group dynamics than on single performances. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, this play’s cast is a throng — fourteen players and four musicians would make navigating Langham’s limited stage space difficult, if not for Geoff Malcolm’s fine choreography. Bobby and the couples display incredible economy of movement in the ensemble number “Side by Side by Side,” leaving just enough room for some endearingly dreadful improvised dance moves by the husbands.

The performance space is paramount here. With its nondescript modern furniture, ever-present bar, and two identical open-brick columns, Barbara Clerihue’s set may not be visually striking, but its agility allows for subtle variations on the ubiquitous brownstone apartment. Plus, this shifting sameness provides a fitting backdrop for the alienation of Manhattan’s crowded streets in “Another Hundred People,” sung by the lionhearted Marta (Meera Mathew).

Audiences might have a hard time remembering who’s who with all those bodies on stage. Thankfully, though, each couple’s attire is colour-coded to indicate who belongs with whom. This brilliant sartorial choice from Diane Madill doubles as an amusing visual metaphor for the married men and women’s lack of individual autonomy.

Nevertheless, there are some stand-out performances among the couples. Smokey-eyed and sardonic, Francesca Bitoni plays Joanne with devil-may-care defiance and credible self-doubt. Special applause also goes to Emilee Nimetz as Amy, the reluctant bride whose premarital melodrama and whirlwind performance of the solo “Getting Married Today” had the audience teary-eyed with laughter. Agonizing over cold feet and hot orange juice, she draws real tears from her fiancé, Paul (Thomas Miller), just as rain begins to fall outside their apartment.

Moments like this reveal this production’s brilliance. From the eerie, simultaneous intonations of the couples in the opening surprise party scene to Bobby’s final, sly wink to the audience, Jarvis’s Company moves to an ever-present beat. While the show may be dated, its timing is just right.