Monday, June 27, 2016

Holy Matrimony, Sondheim: Love is Spending an Afternoon with Blissful 'Company' in Swell New Digs -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru July 31

My understanding and appreciation of the world has been considerably enriched by Stephen Sondheim.

And my understanding and appreciation of Stephen Sondheim has been considerably enhanced by—among 50+ productions I’ve seen of his various musicals—a few truly exquisite renditions.

This isn’t to knock community theater stagings or more pedestrian professional versions, many of which have been highly enjoyable.

And this isn’t a case of theatrical snobbery, as Broadway productions of Follies and Sunday in the Park with George aren’t among those I rank as the very best.

Both those shows were more perfectly rendered by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (links to my Follies and Sunday... reviews), under the direction of Gary Griffin, as were A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Passion and Gypsy.

The new Writers Theatre building in Glencoe
Passion, Sunday… and Anyone Can Whistle were also given sublime concert stagings at Ravinia with Broadway luminaries Patti LuPone, Audra MacDonald and Michael Cerveris. (So were , Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, but I didn’t see them there.)

I still recall a terrific Sweeney Todd by Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002, and a more recent strong version at Drury Lane Oakbrook, one of several venues where I’ve seen resplendent West Side Storys in recent years.

After a couple lesser versions, a Northwestern University student take on Into the Woods helped me appreciate all of its charms. And though I’ve only seen Merrily We Roll Along done by a small suburban troupe, it was a storied production with Jessie Mueller in her last local show before becoming a Tony-winning Broadway star.

Which essentially left Company as the only major Sondheim work I’d yet to see, and appreciate, at full tilt (excepting a rather strong 2006 Broadway version and 2011 New York Philharmonic rendition seen via DVD).

I would think the show a natural for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to stage as they’ve done with many other Sondheim shows, and as the narrative is uniquely episodic rather than linear, it would seem quite apt for a Ravinia concert staging.

But fortunately, after not getting a professional Equity Chicagoland production of Company since 1989 if the Writers Theatre show program is to be believed, the Glencoe self-producing house is now presenting it as the first mainstage production in its beautiful new home designed by world-renowned Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

And corroborating my opening thesis, the superbly staged, sung and acted performance considerably elevated my regard for Company, well-beyond simply knowing the wonderful score or having seen somewhat middling community and small professional productions in the early '00s.

Obviously, any musical--or play for that matter--will be more satisfying the better the production values and performances, but given the intelligence, depth and sophistication of Sondheim's music and particularly his lyrics, a truly supreme iteration is especially appreciable.

Company was first staged on Broadway in 1970, and like every show since for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, it can challenge unsuspecting audiences. (West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim only wrote the lyrics in the late '50s, are brilliant but less emblematic of the shows he also composed.)

Coming 8 years after Sondheim's only real 1960s hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and half a decade after two flops--Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz?--the ensemble piece was both daring and groundbreaking.

Not only is it devoid of chorus lines or much choreography, but rather than having a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end, it offers keen insights on married life by having 35-year-old bachelor Robert--well-played at Writers by Thom Miller--observe five sets of married couples in a series of vignettes.

With three women Robert--or alternatively, as in the show's dominant musical motif, Bobby, Bubby, Robby, etc.--is dating also factoring in, each scene involves a good amount of dialogue (written by George Furth) that leads into a song, either by the given couple, the other couples, Robert, his paramours or some combination thereof. (Little in the world of Stephen Sondheim is ever routine.)

If you don't know the songs of Company, my describing them isn't going to adequately convey how shrewd they are, but each one works brilliantly on multiple levels, both within the show and as universal life lessons.

For example, early in the show, following a vignette where Robert visits his friends Harry and Sarah (James Earl Jones II and Alexis J. Rogers, both superb), who wind up wrestling with each other, the song "The Little Things You Do Together" features stanzas such as:

"It's the little things you share together,
Swear together, 
Wear together, 
That make perfect relationships. 
The concerts you enjoy together, 
Neighbors you annoy together, 
Children you destroy together, 
That keep marriage intact"

But while I would recommend that Writers patrons wanting to get the most out of Company familiarize themselves with the music ahead of time--and be forewarned about the and non-linear, episodic conceit--what makes this production directed by William Brown so good is how well each of the scenes work beyond the songs.

I used to perceive them as often dull, overlong interludes, but here they truly add to the artfulness and acuity in depicting relationships.

This is abetted not only by universally strong acting (and then singing)--Allison Hendrix (as Amy), Christine Mild (Marta) and Lia Mortensen (Joanne) are among the standouts--but by the deftly intimate 250-seat Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre within Writers' spacious new complex.

On a considerably smaller scale than Chicago Shakespeare employs for its mainstage Sondheim affairs, director Brown and set designer Todd Rosenthal really make smart use of the thrust stage to let one imagine we're with Robert and his friends in various Manhattan apartments.

The makeshift bedroom on the wondrous "Barcelona"--featuring Jess Godwin as April, a stewardess Robert is seeing--is particularly ingenious.

As, again, are so many of Sondheim's songs, including "Another Hundred People" about the non-stop pace of the Big Apple (really well-sung by Mild), "Getting Married Today," probably the most brilliant song ever composed about getting cold feet on one's wedding day (Hendrix handles the staccato lyrics terrifically), "The Ladies Who Lunch," with Mortensen giving a different but fully compelling feel to a tune made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original cast, Robert's closing "Being Alive," strongly delivered by Miller.

For all the insights the songs and libretto put forth about married life--and it's worth noting that Stephen Sondheim is a gay man not himself in a long-term relationship until recent years; in 1970 the word "gay" was barely referenced in Company and gay marriage not depicted--I can't say I can truly gauge the intended motivations of the central character.

I'm not really sure if Robert longs to be married--at any point in the show--or is just continually made to feel sheepish and apologetic about remaining single by his wedded friends.

Making things a bit more interesting at Writers is that while seemingly none of the original dialogue or lyrics are altered--therefore keeping things in certain regards as they were in 1970--Brown's decision to prominently employ smartphones makes this Company feel rather contemporary at the same time. 

Based on some audience reactions I heard, as well as those of patrons at a performance a relative attended, Company probably isn't a musical everyone will wholeheartedly embrace, especially on a first encounter without some wherewithal. (For all of the beauty of Gang's interior space, the theater would do well to glean the type of informational displays well-employed by Northlight and TimeLine theaters.)

Appreciating Sondheim takes a bit of work, and although I think several of the songs here are rather hummable, this isn't a traditional "show tunes" musical.

But for those, like me, who love most everything the maestro has done, you'd be hard-pressed to spend 2-1/2 hours in more delightful Company.

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