Theatre20 revives the classic Sondheim musical Company in Toronto.
Hear-ye, hear-ye musical theatre geeks of Toronto. Local artist-led musical theatre collective Theatre20 has revived Company, one of the great classic Sondheim musicals. Like any self-respecting musical theatre geek, I’ve listened to cast recordings of Company and have seen various artists performing renditions of its songs in revues and cabarets but I hadn’t seen a fully-staged production of the show until now.
Originally opened on Broadway in 1970, Company is a non-linear series of scenes that centre on the character of Bobby, a chronically single 35-year-old professional living in Manhattan and his coupled friends who implore him to settle down and get married. Now, I’m also a single guy in my mid-30s who moved to the big city, I’m very much like Bobby in so many ways so I should find him relatable… except I couldn’t relate to Bobby at all. Bobby sure doesn’t sound like any 35-year-old I know.
Director Gary Griffin chose to set his production of Company in present-day New York City… except it doesn’t look or feel like present-day New York. Instead, it’s sort of a weird parallel universe where people dress like they do today but retain the language, social norms and dated values of the late ‘60s when the musical was written and where the “New York” they live in is a bland, colourless place where there are no people of colour to be seen.
Having only heard the music from Company I was looking forward to finally seeing the show they came from. Sondheim’s songs are indeed classics and prove to be timeless. Unfortunately, George Furth’s book (the scripted dialogue between musical numbers) comes off feeling terribly dated.
I challenge the claim on the company’s website that “Company is as contemporary and relevant as ever.” Even the premise at the core of Company, that everybody ought to settle down and marry, is quaint and antiquated. Marriage isn’t for everybody and what’s wrong with being single anyway?
Material that was likely edgy for its time now just feels played out and cliché. The scene where characters smoke pot would have been envelope-pushing for its time but now it comes off as juvenile “stoner” humour. The scene where one character awkwardly makes a “gay pass” at another is at the very least eye-roll-inducing if not downright cringe-worthy.
Luckily, if you’re able to overlook the dissonance caused by the dated book the show’s musical numbers often shine through. In fact, this is probably the one musical I’d actually prefer to see as a concert.
Highlights for me include Carly Street as neurotic bride-to-be Amy, her rendition of “Getting Married Today” is gut-bustingly funny, and Louise Pitre, who seems to have a lock on playing the tough-as-nails, world-weary, no-nonsense matron. The undercurrent of sorrow she channels during her number “The Ladies Who Lunch” is remarkably touching.
Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame is an interesting casting choice. She does well in the fairly unassuming role that she’s given (Jenny) although I would’ve liked to see her cast in a more substantial part.
Dan Chameroy struggles throughout the show to make sense of his character Bobby and never really succeeds at making him relatable given the awkwardness of the book scenes but when he sings the closing number “Being Alive” he finally imbues the character with the authenticity and emotional connection that was missing through the rest of the show.
Music Director Scott Christian does a commendable job with the orchestrations; his orchestral reduction of the score for a 5-piece ensemble comprised of piano, drums/percussion, bass, cello and reeds retains enough weightiness to make the arrangements feel full and matches the scale of the production while still allowing the actors to sing unamplified in the mid-sized space.
At the end of the day this show wasn’t the bold, inventive reimagining of a classic musical that I was hoping for. Instead, Theatre20 gives us a by-the-numbers production that doesn’t really elevate the material or present it in any sort of interesting new way. As a result, I thought the show came off feeling dated, predictable and often a bit bland. The music may be the production’s one saving grace, go for the Sondheim and try not to be distracted by the dated book.
- Company is playing through July 13, 2014 at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets $30 – $69
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at theatre20.com.
Photo of the company by Riyad Mustapha.