All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Hunter Foster defeats the most resounding impediment people mention when you wonder why there’s not more productions of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical above wedlock and commitment, “Company.”
The unfamiliarity with pot, a woman studying martial arts, a couple living together for the sake of their children in spite of getting a divorce, a guy making a gay overture to his friend, congratulatory promiscuity, and anyone wearing a hat smacks of the early, just-after-the-sexual-revolution 1970s, when “Company” was written. As good as the show’s music and book are, the plot sketches showing the foibles of marriage have stymied a lot of production because they scream “dated.”
Not at Bucks County Playhouse. Without setting “Company” in the ’70s, and by updating the script only casually, adding Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s name here, referring to a stewardess as a flight attendant there, Foster as director manages to make “Company” feel contemporary and current.
Part of his triumph is handling each scene as it comes. Foster knows you’ll divine “Company’s” theme, and that many seeing the show in New Hope are devotees of it anyhow, so he concentrates on turning each of Furth’s vignettes about a married couple being visited by their 35-year-old bachelor friend, Bobby, into its own little one-act play.
Forget whether there’s not one thirtysomething living in New York, at least among the people Bobby might know, who hasn’t tried marijuana half a lifetime before. It doesn’t make a difference. Justin Guarini as Bobby, and Laura Jordan and Steve Rosen as the couple he’s dining with, keep time or maturity from being a factor. They just tackle Furth’s sketch for what it is and play it naturally and comically. Instead of thinking you were transported by time machine to what was new and sophisticated 45 years ago, you see three talented actors making a scene fresh, bringing out its humor while exhibiting the camaraderie that “Company” is really about.
Having Justin Guarini on hand is a headstart to making any production a success.
Guarini may have catapulted to stardom 13 years ago as one of the first finalists on Fox’s “American Idol” — He came in second to Kelly Clarkson in “AI’s” initial season. — but his relatively instant fame and lasting recognition only begins his story. An ingenuous singer and performer, with a beautiful, versatile voice, intelligent understanding of material, and a knack for fitting naturally into any role, Guarini has made a commendable name for himself on live stages. Bucks County’s “Company” is only the latest of several direct, sincere, guileless performances with which his warm, fusslessly instinctive actor has graced the stage. He impressed as Billy Flynn in Jennie Eisenhower’s production of “Chicago” for the Media Theatre when he was just priming his theatrical wings. Recently, he has accomplished two amazing feats.
I did not have the luck to see Justin in “American idiot,” “Rent,” “Wicked,” or, to my everlasting regret, “A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but I watched him work literal miracles in two productions that were going sour very quickly until he relieved the agony. The first time was in David Leveaux’s misguided 2013 production of “Romeo and Juliet,” when excellent actor after excellent actor was being sacrificed unmercifully to Leveaux’s poor guidance. Guarini, in the small but pivotal part of Paris, the Capulets’ intended groom for Juliet, entered the stage with earnest simplicity and immediately showed what was going wrong with sundry other performances. They were not based in reality. They derived from an idea, a concept Leveaux wanted to express. Guarini, by fitting into the concept but triumphing over its excesses (as did the Romeo, Orlando Bloom), freshened the air and provided a character for you to welcome, engage with, and listen to. In his hands, Paris wasn’t such a bad alternative.
Just this March, while playing Julio, a miner outcast from the general camp because he is Mexican, in Lerner and Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon” for Encores!, Guarini enlivened and gave texture to a moribund production by the romantic intensity with which he played Julio, and the soft, arresting way in which he sang on of “Wagon’s” lovelier numbers, “I Talk to the Trees.” Guarini has a way of engaging with castmates, and the audience to make you enjoy and presence and wish the best for his characters and their prospects. He brings that same effortless openness, acuity, and effortless depth to Bucks County’s “Company.”
Guarini’s Bobby is not as I would direct him to be. He’s more laid-back and informal while would ask for more conscious style and bon vivant sophistication.
And it works. It works beautifully and realistically and, I noticed, helps propel “Company” more into the teen years of the 21st century, when Bobby would be more open-collared, shirt-tail out, and easygoing.
Guarini creates a different kind of nice guy than I imagine, and that’s OK. It makes you see immediately what endears Bobby to his friends, those good and crazy people, his married friends, and makes wonderful sense of the opening number, “Company,” as well as “Side by Side by Side,” and its mid-song counterpart, “What Would We Do Without You?”
Guarini’s performance cements Foster’s “Company.” It gives the reality and sweetness that makes you care about Bobby and his quest for lasting love as much as the married women who populate his life do when they refer to him as “poor baby.”
Foster keeps the pace and the look of his production contemporary. He not only finds the key to making each of Furth’s sketches play, even the one featuring the divorced, co-inhabiting couple, he endows “Company” with sensibility and texture. You see Bobby’s struggle in coping with commitment and trying to decide if married life costs too much in terms of independence and self-actuation. With Guarini’s portrayal of Bobby obviously helping, Foster sets sequences in motion so that all Sondheim and Furth bring forward in “Company” seems important and worth considering. The musical Sondheim, then 40, wanted to write about current adult relationships is seen in full complexity on the Bucks County stage.
Naturally, I cannot let a Hunter Foster staging go by without criticism. As a director, Foster does get carried away, and while he’s tempered his talent so he can choose among ideas that arise and select the one that best serves the number or show he’s helming, there will be always be a passage or two about which to cavil.
One takes place in the midst of the setting of “Side and Side by Side,” a number about companionship and the reliability of friends, specifically Bobby as a friend. What, inquiring minds want to know, might have prompted Foster to include within Lorin Latarro’s usually excellent choreography, a fist fight between two of Bobby’s male friends, a fight that looks as if it might turn into a full melee with lots of dancing Humpty Dumpties taking falls?
The gambit doesn’t work and belies the meaning of the song being sung as it occurs.
I also wonder about the choice Foster makes with costume designer Jennifer Caprio to keep Bobby is a maroon sport coat, blue jeans, sneakers, and same everyday shirt he wears throughout the play when he attends Amy and Paul’s wedding, at which all of the characters are dressed in matching pearl gray suits and day dresses. Yes, Guarini is part of the long preceding scene in which Amy and Paul discuss whether they will actually go through with marriage, but he clearly has time to change, even if he throws his formal togs over his normal clothes. The choice to keep Bobby wearing a weekend street outfit, made worse by that colorful Joseph swatch of a jacket, is out of keeping with the character Guarini has created or the rest of Foster’s production.
These lapses turn out to be unimportant in terms of the enjoyment or flow of “Company,” but they are egregious enough to mar the overall production to some extent and make one wonder why no one censored the fisticuffs idea or spoke up about the Bobby’s slovenly wedding appearance.
Foster also deserves credit for some masterful craftsmanship. As with many musicals, a number of songs written for “Company” were cut, some to be replaced by others.
Because so many anthologies of Sondheim’s compositions have been produced, and one whole musical, “Marry Me a Little” consists almost entirely of songs excised from Sondheim songs, we are familiar with many of the pieces that ended up in a trunk instead of on stage. As I said while reviewing Montgomery Theatre’s “Marry Me a Little,” discarded Sondheim trumps most of the drivel that passes for Broadway scores today.
Don’t believe me? Give a listen to this year’s Tony recipient for best music and lyrics, “Fun Home,” and see how it compares with Kander and Ebb’s score for “The Visit” or Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s numbers for “Something Rotten!,” let along how it stands up against Sondheim.
The title that keeps cropping up, “Marry Me a Little,” is a wonderful song that was rendered redundant when Sondheim composed the even more wonderful ‘Being Alive” and conceived the hauntingly telling, “Someone is Waiting.”
All three songs tell how Bobby is ready for a partner but wants to set conditions and standards for how life should be while living, in marriage, with that person.
“Marry Me a Little” made the chopping block in 1970, but contemporary producers find a way to sneak in it, and Foster was particularly deft in using it as a first-closer, an honor usually retained for Amy’s locomotive a number, “Getting Married Today.”
Were I more astute, I might be able to pinpoint the script and format Bucks County and Foster used for this production of “Company.” Not knowing, I yet appreciate the skill in which this script is assembled. If Foster, Latarro or the smart folks at BCP — Robyn Goodman, Alex Fraser, Stephen Kocis, and Josh Fielder — is responsible, kudos and strewn rose petals are offered in tribute to your taste and perspicacity.
Foster’s entire “Company” cast contribute to the Bucks County production’s success. Guarini is the knight in cotton armor and the glue that holds Foster’s show together, but Amy Weatherhead, Candy Buckley, and others also pitch in mightily to keep matters smart and animated.
In a weird imbalance, the women are all stronger than their male counterparts. John Caliendo registers well and matches Guarini in simple depth as the harried groom, Paul, and Max Kumengai is lively and nicely flirtatious as the divorced switch-hitter Peter, but in general the male cast supports scenes while the women drive them.
Weatherhead, who finds an equal counterpart in Caliendo, is all ironic, neurotic fluster as Amy, the soon-to-be wife, who thinks marriage will destroy the harmony and happiness she and Paul have found in living as a couple for several years. She shares and echoes Bobby’s concern that commitment is a trap and that you’re more likely to stay where you are if there’s an easy escape route, as opposed to in a marriage, where divorce, mandatorily sticking out adversity, and other ugly options rear their nefarious heads.
“Getting Married Today,” with its daunting speed and even more daunting vocabulary — Christening?, hepatitis?, funnier to go about your funerals?, floating in the Hudson with the other garbage? — might be the most difficult song in any Broadway musical, and Weatherhead nails it with clarity, wit, and comic aplomb.
Candy Buckley does the same with the brittle, observant, oh so insightful “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a song that increases in difficulty because of its association with one extraordinary performer, the late Elaine Stritch. Buckley makes it into a personal triumph.
Weatherhead acted her scene as well as she performed her blockbuster, and Buckley proves to be a tart, cynical, and sharp Joanne, but most of the other woman in the cast have a special moment as an actress.
Jennifer Cody is funny and shrewd as the budding karate grasshopper who practices her defense moves on her competitive husband, who swears she will never best him in battle. Laura Jordan has been cited for her nicely measured bit as the novice pot smoker. Susannah Jones completely won my heart with her sincerity and honest approach toward Bobby’s single state, and “Company’s” most conventional character, Susan.
Guarini and Anne Horak make the number, “Barcelona,” an encapsulating playlet that covers the themes, ideas, and fears of “Company” in a shrewdly conceived nutshell. Guarini’s natural insouciance particularly pays off in the “Barcelona” sequence.
The first number I ever heard from “Company,” the eloquent and difficult “Another Hundred People” is presented excellently by Chelsea Emma Franko as Marta, one of the four women Bobby juggles on his dating calendar. Sondheim has fun in “Poor Baby” by having all of the women who want Bobby to settle into marriage tear the ladies Bobby is dating to shreds. (“She’s tall enough to be your mother. Goliath!”) He is also devilish is denoting what a slippery character Bobby is to catch in “You Can Drive a Person Crazy.” (“It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull to try to get you off of your rump.”)
the Sondheim score, one of his best and the first that captures the style by which Sondheim would dominate American show music for the next four decades, is gem after gem of perceptive songs that ask the right question and find the right emotion.
“Sorry-Grateful” might be one of the best analyses of marriage ever, while “The Little Things You Do Together” (“the hobbies you enjoy together, neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together”) shows the complexity and resignation of connubial companionship.
Foster stages scenes and numbers, for the most part, with revealing care. Lorin Latarro continues to show her art as a maker of dance with every show she does at Bucks. Her work is particularly outstanding, as it was even in Foster’s woebegone “Ain’t Misbehavin'” in 2014.
With the exception of Bobby’s wedding attire, Jennifer Caprio did a fine job with “Company’s” costumes, Jason Sherwood’s set accommodates a lot of locations and does well morphing into various apartments. I especially liked the simple sofa ensemble for the night club set from which Buckley sings “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
“Company” runs through Sunday, June 21, at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $85 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by visiting www.bcptheatre.org.