Sunday, October 7, 2007

COMPANY by Stephen Sondheim at the Arts Club

Photos: Left, poster for Arts Club production of COMPANY []; Right, Dean Jones [Bobby] and Elaine Stritch [Joanne] in the original Broadway COMPANY of 1970 []
Let's get this straight - Stephen Sondheim is a genius of the musical theatre. I grew up in the 80s to his musicals, a total re-education from the Andrew Lloyd Webbers and That's Entertainment clips of classic American musical movies I was weaned on. Sondheim is thinking person's musical theatre, at times almost raised to philosophical worth. After all, not many composers of musicals earn Pulitzer prizes, as Sondheim and his later collaborator James Lapine did for Sunday in the Park with George in 1987. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is his 1979 masterwork, and is to open this Christmas in a film version by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. I have never seen Sweeney onstage, but treasure the original soundtrack LP I own, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury...fantastic from first to last note. So when Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre produces this early Sondheim, his first musical hit (he had been a lyricist for huge musicals like Gypsy and West Side Story, but this was his first composer/lyricist show), I am nothing if not there.
The Bill Millerd-directed production, for the most part, does not disappoint. Matt Palmer plays a strong Bobby, the 35 year old bachelor protagonist surrounded by his loving and meddling married friends, with solid acting and singing throughout. This is a role where he is hardly ever offstage, so is a big challenge. Palmer delivers, giving rousing renditions of songs like Marry Me a Little, I'm Ready and the show-closing Being Alive. Palmer is well-supported with a large cast populated by top Vancouver musical theatre talent. Standouts for me were many of the women, to whom Sondheim gives the choicest songs aside from Bobby's: Another Hundred People, I'm Not Getting Married Today and the vicious Ladies Who Lunch were all sung with gusto and panache by their respective performers. Orchestrations were tight; the set recalled the Hal Prince original production evoking a stark urban space, with set pieces defining locations moving smoothly on and off as needed. Costumes were a bit monochromatically black for me, but livened up in Act Two. Choreography was the weak spot in the production and was serviceable at best; at worst, a solo dance sequence that is best forgotten.
That said, Company remains a powerful forerunner to the masterpieces that were to come, and I delighted in hearing echoes of melody lines that will develop into Sondheim's signature sound. There are Sondheim songs I can barely listen to, so much do they kick me in the emotional gut, and now I have Being Alive to add to that list (including Nothing's Gonna Harm You and Pretty Women from Sweeney, Move On from Sunday, Not Alone and Children Will Listen from Into the Woods, Loving You from Passion). Sondheim's stories and characters can go to dark emotional places, and there is a powerful kind of satisfaction/comfort you can get from art that pushes you and pleases you in the beautiful musical/lyrical tension that marks his work. Check out the soundtrack for the Broadway remount show, directed by John Doyle, in 2006, with a terrific performance by Raul Esparza as Bobby.

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