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Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

With its cast of affluent, thirtysomething yuppies who criticize each other’s life-styles while agonizing over their own, Company would seem to be the perfect 1980s musical. When songwriter Stephen Sondheim and playwright George Furth unveiled the work nearly 20 years ago, its relentless obsession with marriage seemed a reactionary last gasp in an era of social and sexual experimentation; there was something almost quaint about the show’s protagonist, Robert, torturing himself about his inability to commit to any one woman. An anguished bachelor convinced that, at 35, it’s time he got hitched, Robert is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the state of wedlock as embodied in the relationships of his married friends–to whose hospitality he clings parasitically in an effort to stave off confronting himself and his loneliness. Those friends, in turn, are unhealthily dependent on their buddy “Bobby baby” (or “Bobby bubbie”); he’s the “swinging single” that the other men wish they still were, and that the women secretly desire. Spending his evenings at other couples’ homes–“side by side by side,” as the second-act opening song puts it–Robert is at once the object of his friends’ envy and the symbol of unhappiness to which those friends point to justify their own decision to get married.

In none of this, as barbed and bitter as George Furth’s script often gets, is there any questioning of the institution of marriage itself; even such alternatives as divorce and unofficial cohabitation are seen as minor variations on the real thing. As the exploratory 70s have passed into the retro-traditional 80s, Company’s conservatism seems as comfortably familiar as the all-American horniness of South Pacific or the good-natured bickering of Roseanne–and very much at home in the plush confines of the suburban Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace theater. That comfortableness, though, has not come without compromises.

Some of these compromises are bizarrely blatant: for instance, the alteration of a scene in which Robert and two friends, David and Jenny, hold their own private pot party. Apparently an audience that laughed tolerantly at scene after scene depicting destructive dependency on food, alcohol, tranquilizers, and cigarettes thought marijuana a bit much; the pot has been changed to tequila because the theater received numerous complaints during previews.

Generally, though, the compromises are the same kinds every theater faces when it tries to do Sondheim: finding performers who can handle the fiendishly difficult material. Sondheim has an unfair reputation for being an unemotional writer; the truth is, he offers access to intense emotionality not through the usual sloppy sentimentality that passes for expressiveness in musicals, but through technical demands that few performers can handle. The score of Company–which launched the “concept musical” and established the promising if eccentric youngish lyricist of West Side Story and composer of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle as the modern musical’s only certifiable genius–is filled with complex internal rhythms, pungent chromatic harmonies, intricate choral counterpoint, and brilliant internal rhymes that require pinpoint precision from the singers. In Drury Lane’s Company, there are significant problems.

But there are significant successes, too. I can’t, for instance, imagine that any Sondheim admirer would want to pass up Kathy Santen’s rendition of “Another Hundred People,” the song sung by Robert’s sometime girlfriend Marta. Characterized, like many numbers in this echt-New York show, by a fast pulsing tempo that comments on Manhattan’s frenetic pace, this song is at once plaintive and pungent as it depicts the crowds of strangers pouring in and out of the city’s subways every day; Santen, with her agile enunciation and spine-tingling soprano belt, brings down the house as she digs into the number’s anger and sorrow while simultaneously reveling in Sondheim’s virtuosity, and her own.

I would strongly recommend that Company fans make a point of seeing Paula Scrofano’s performance as Amy, the high-strung Catholic heading for a nervous breakdown as she approaches marriage to Paul, the too-good-to-be-true Jew with whom she’s been living. Scrofano sizzles in “Getting Married Today,” Amy’s tongue-twisting cry of terror, offering a characterization at once broadly funny and genuinely scary.

Nothing else in the show reaches the heights that Santen and Scrofano scale, but there is a good deal of pleasure to be obtained. Dolores Noah and Jill Walmsley effectively mix elegance and earthiness in the bluesy “Poor Baby”; Mary Beth Dolan is sweet as the stewardess April, who responds innocently to Robert’s insincere plea for her to stay with him after a one-night stand, in the ironic yet wistful ballad “Barcelona”; Ilya Parenteau dances sensuously in the “Tick Tock” solo that choreographically represents April and Robert’s lovemaking. And musical director Tom Sivak has coached a glossy instrumental sound from his versatile six-man band and a generally lush choral blend from the 14-person cast.

Yet Sivak and the singers need to address certain rhythmical problems. The men’s trio “Sorry, Grateful,” with its gentle tango figures, is particularly sloppy. Part of the trouble may be bad acoustics; Bill Wood’s sound levels were very inconsistent the night I attended.

Much more seriously, the production is weakened by two key performances. The less troublesome of the two is Mark St. Amant as Robert. He’s very attractive and likable as the drifting boy-man with gawky gestures and goofy laugh, but when he finally approaches his emotional breakthrough in the treacherous and wondrous “Being Alive,” with its slowly spun out, gradually soaring melody that reflects Robert’s emerging self-awareness and courage–he comes off as a shallow lounge singer, delivering the notes but not the meaning.

Much worse is Diane Houghton as Joanne, the middle-aged boozer who finally prods Robert to break out of his emotional paralysis and take a risk. Looking like a bizarre cross between 50s personality Virginia Graham and the Crazy Guggenheim character on the old Jackie Gleason TV show, and sounding like an Ethel Merman imitator in a bowling-alley amateur show, Houghton is all caricature–lots of mugging, lots of raised eyebrows, lots of knowing nods to the audience–in a part that requires exceptional subtlety to mute its potential grotesqueness. The result is all too apparent in the tepid applause that follows Joanne’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a showstopper under almost any other circumstances.

In her first effort at directing musical comedy, Steppenwolf Theatre’s Rondi Reed seems secure in the show’s emphasis on ensemble playing as well as individual characterization–except for Houghton, the cast delivers generally honest and interesting performances. But Reed is less skillful at handling George Furth’s sketchy script; the books for musicals are deliberately underwritten, and Reed seems to have had trouble getting a handle on the dramatic continuity and the connection between dialogue and song. Leaving the staging of musical numbers in other hands (those of Jim Corti) further hampers the show’s flow. There’s a precedent for it–in directing the 1970 Broadway premiere, Harold Prince left the staging of the songs to up-and-coming choreographer Michael Bennett–but Reed clearly lacks Prince’s overriding vision. Only one song (“Another Hundred People,” in which Santen and James Noone’s high-tech, multi-leveled revolving set move in contrary directions while lonely Robert huddles in the shadows) creates an image that works both visually and dramatically. This is not a perfect show by any means, but its high points are very high indeed.