It wasn’t immediately clear what to expect from Wednesday’s press opening of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company. On its first run, this musical was a smash hit, nominated for 13 Tony Awards and winning six, including Best Musical. The play centers around Bobby, who, on his 35th birthday, is beginning to rethink perma-bachelorhood and yearning for answers on whether or not marriage is worth it, which he tries to glean from his fantastically varied group of married friends in a series of vignettes that serve to establish the rich group of characters as well as help explore modern relationships. Will he end up with one of his three current girlfriends, stay a bachelor forever, or will life bring him someone new?
Just as relationships change, though, so too do “modern” attitudes on them, and I wondered if a 46-year-old play could speak to a modern audience. Under William Brown’s direction and the wonderful casting in the new Writers Theatre production, this show not only remains relevant, but is an honest, funny and extremely poignant look at life and love that absolutely transcends its era. It’s hard to sing Sondheim, and it’s hard to talk frankly about love and what it’s really like, but in both cases, this cast rises to the challenge and tackles it with grace, heart and a whole lot of comedic talent.
The show opens on, and centers around a 35th birthday party for Bobby, played by Thom Miller. As he dives into the overture and title song, we’re introduced to the five couples that make up his social circle, and a little bit of the dependency he has on them for entertainment and companionship. It’s here we see, even as Miller struggles some to make Bobby a likeable lead, some of the real standouts of the show. James Earl Jones II plays Harry, a mischievous, somewhat overwhelmed husband to Alexis J. Rogers’ Sarah, an equally quirky, somewhat acerbic perfect match for him. Jones immediately establishes a big presence, with fantastic vocals and a natural comedic talent. His Harry is a soft-hearted, quick-witted favorite throughout the show.
As Bobby travels through the first act’s vignettes, we meet and begin to understand the differences in his coupled friends. And where Miller’s Robert may have felt flat at the beginning, his charm and charisma really shine as he lies on the floor smoking pot with Blair Robertson’s sweet but square Jenny and her husband, David (Patrick Martin) who sometimes wishes to be less square and more free. It’s during this vignette that we really start to see Bobby’s insecurity and good nature, rather than the sharp edges of a bachelor on the go.
Sondheim and George Furth, who wrote the book for Company, never back away from the hard stuff, and never present love behind rose-colored glasses. Instead, they present it as it actually is, with all of its holes and broken places. There’s no part of the show that was better handled, more beautifully acted or more arresting than the vignette featuring Paul and Amy. The scene opens on a frantic Amy, played by Allison Hendrix in her first role at Writers, on the morning of her wedding. She has feet so cold as to be frostbitten, and pleads with the audience and everyone around her to help her avoid the wedding and hurting her sweet fiance, played by Bernard Balbot. Hendrix is a fantastic comedic actress, and her frenzy as she tries to make breakfast and play off her fears is one of the most memorable, hysterical things I’ve seen in a long time. All at once, Bernard’s amazing chemistry with her and incredibly believable love for her adds a new height to the scene and great tension.
When the comedy finally stops and Amy utters a desperate “I don’t love you enough!” as her final argument for not getting married, all the air is immediately sucked from the room, save for a few stunned gasps in the audience. It’s perhaps the most emotional point in the show, and there are no two better actors to handle it. There was a genuine joy in the room on their reconciliation, and sense of relief.
The first act is full of these moments, great rises and falls with the couples Bobby so admires, amazing songs that so accurately describe how you can simultaneously be “Sorry/Grateful” to be with someone, and an amazing energy and synergy from the cast as a whole. Perhaps the only real stumbling point for the cast came for the girlfriends in the vocals for the song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” which suffered during some of Sondheim’s more fiendish phrases and chord structures, but won us over with quirky charm anyhow.
The second act, though, which delivers some of the most melancholy moments and emotional weight for the play, was excellent, but still felt too short and even a little one-toned. We missed the energy and effervescent comedy of the first act and wished for just a little injection of that in the second half, even if that meant changing where the intermission was. Overall, though, this was a fantastic production, with an immensely talented cast that produced a lot of laughs, a lot of misty eyes, and at least for me, a real appreciation for love as it really is, instead of love as we find it in fairy tales. The tunes are catchy, the cast is talented, and this is a show you shouldn’t miss.
Company runs 2 hours, 30 minutes, and will be at Writers Theater in Glencoe until July 31, It’s absolutely worth the train ride out to see it. Tickets are $35-90 and can be bought online or by calling 847-242-6000.