Monday, April 16, 2018

Being Alive, and Well: Fine 'Company' Fits Nicely Into New Venus Cabaret Theater at Mercury -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Venus Cabaret Theater
at Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 3

An appreciation for the musicals of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim has not only earmarked approximately the last third of my life, it has considerably enhanced it.

In every year since 2001, I have seen at least one live rendition--and often several--of shows for which Sondheim wrote the music & lyrics (or, in the cases of West Side Story and Gypsy, just the lyrics).

There have also been a number of revues featuring the maestro's sublime songs, tribute concerts (including some televised ones) and even a few occasions at which I got to see Sondheim himself speak.

But I find that revisiting the material--including via Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods movies--never fails to tangibly regenerate my "passion" for Sondheim, whose lyrics (and music) uniquely befit a given show while invariably being remarkably sage on a universal level.

So although I had seen his 1970 musical, Company, as recently as 2016 (in a terrific take at Glencoe's Writers Theatre) and own-on-DVD two New York productions from just the past dozen years, I was excited to check out yet another rendition by Chicago's fine self-producing Mercury Theater.

This wasn't my first Sondheim show of 2018, as I saw Porchlight's Merrily We Roll Along in late January, but still represented something enticingly new.

Although I didn't quite grasp this until I arrived Saturday afternoon at Mercury's longstanding home on Southport Avenue--just doors from the Music Box Theater--under the auspices of executive director L. Walter Stearns, the Venus Cabaret Theater has newly been opened in an adjoining space.

The large auditorium--whose origins date back to 1912 and in which I'd seen Mercury productions of The Producers, Avenue Q and Ring of Fire--still exists, but while I can't cite exactly which restaurant or bar most recently sat just south, extensive renovation has created the Venus.

Company represents the public bow for the spiffy new 80-seat space, and it's a show that works quite well in such a setting.

The 2-act show revolves around a New York bachelor named Robert (nicely played here by David Sajewich), who, as the show opens is being feted at a surprise 35th birthday party.

Before the performance begins, cast members mingle with the audience, even doing some ushering and cocktail serving, and occasionally are interspersed throughout during the show.

This helps the patrons feel like they are at Robert's party and--at least at the opening performance--we were graciously provided with charcuterie boards and birthday cake.

A three-piece band, let by music director Eugene Dizon, provides fine accompaniment, and the cast does Sondheim's fine songs--largely about marriage and relationships, as Robert's pals cajole him about remaining single--generally quite proud.

Some exemplary so, such as Sajewich on "Someone is Waiting," Kyrie Courter (as Marta) on "Another Hundred People," Jenna Coker-Jones (as Amy) on a wonderfully-frazzled "Getting Married Today" and Heather Townsend (as Joanne) on "Ladies Who Lunch."

Group numbers, such as "Side by Side," sound fantastic, and along with Sajewich, Allison Sill shines on the sublime "Barcelona."

Townsend also well-renders "The Little Things You Do Together" as Frederick Harris and Nicole Cready engage in married-couple karate while welcoming Robert to their home.

But Company--which features adjoining vignettes rather than a straight-line narrative, and has several long stretches without songs being sung--is a tough show to get exactly right.

And while I would recommend this production to anyone not familiar with Company--and even Sondheim acolytes who are--it isn't as goosebump-inducingly good as others I've seen.

None of the performances deserve knocking, but there were a few too few "OMG!" vocal deliveries, and even some timbres close to suspect.

And though Stearns, who directs, is clearly a pro who gets what Sondheim, book writer George Furth and original director Harold Prince were going for, he doesn't quite solve the pacing problems in a seamless way.

Also, while on the surface, the idea to include smartphones onstage seems sage, especially given the literal contemporary setting within the Venus, it does bring a strange dichotomy.

That Sondheim, a gay man not knowingly in a long-term relationship until years later, would in the late-'60s write a somewhat cheeky, but largely not, ode to the wonders of marriage, makes the whole affair feel a bit dated.

Yet if we are to imagine Company is taking place circa 2018 and not 1970--given the iPhones and other small touches--it feels odd that "Bobby" is being given shit for still being single at 35, that none of the couples are gay (though one of the men makes a pass at Robert) and that the actors are predominantly young and white.

I realize that some of these issues are inherent to the material, not unilaterally adjustable (i.e. without seeking/receiving permission) and that you hire the best performers who audition.

So that Mercury's first foray into a "cabaret musical"--with no scenery except for nicely-utilized video panels--is as good as it is, is largely estimable.

And any day when I get to hear fine renditions of "Sorry Grateful," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "Being Alive" and pretty much all of the songs in this show is a good one.

This may not quite be the Sondheim rendering of one's dreams, but especially in a comfortable and welcoming new venue, it undoubtedly makes for fine Company.

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