Bedford — It’s a rare community theater company—or professional one, for that matter—brave enough to take on Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 masterpiece Company. The show serves as a quirky, weirdly wonderful bridge between Sondheim’s fairly traditional early theater work (Gypsy) and his later work (the atonally brilliant Sweeney Todd and Assassins).
As such, Company features both those tunes that you simply can’t get out of your mind (the title song, the peppy “Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You”) and the lyrically challenging, deliciously off-kilter tunes that earned him the reputation of being “unhummable” (the nightmarishly unsingable “Another Hundred People”—although talented Katreeva Phillips pulls it off with few glitches—and the devastating “Being Alive”).
We give major props to Onstage in Bedford, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary season, for giving Company a go. That said, the production has its ups and downs, much as Robert, the main character (Aaron C. White) has his.
As the show opens, “Bobby-baby, Bobby-booby, Robert darling” is facing his 35th birthday surrounded by a quintet of couples who comprise his best friends—amazing that they’re as close as they are given Sondheim’s cynical view of New York, which he calls “a city of strangers." The lyricist-composer’s take on marriage is even dimmer; the various couples argue, freak out over getting married and at the same time wonder wistfully when Bobby will take the plunge.
The first half of Onstage’s take swerves from adequate to, well, better-than-adequate. But by Act Two the cast presents a much more cohesive, entertaining and consistent whole. White suffers from a smile that can seem smarmy; at times you’ll wonder if he’s going to try to sell you a used car. He smiles even when he’s singing about pain. During the big Act Two anthem “Being Alive,” however, White finally gains control of his grin and his Robert emerges as a genuine, sympathetic character.
Most of the couples are cast nicely by director Ashley H. White, with the exception of one actress who wasn’t dissuaded from a truly horrible “Southern” accent. Phillips, the very definition of “long tall drink of water” as one of Bobby’s trio of girlfriends, has the ability to twist her body and face so hilariously I was reminded of a young Carol Burnett.
Also excellent: the gorgeous-voiced Noelle Mason as Jenny, Jacie Hood Wenzel as the ditzy bombshell Kathy, Shannon Walsh as manic Amy, Angela Allen as frenetic Sarah and Christine Chambers, who as Joanne gets one of Sondheim’s most iconic numbers, the viciously observant “Being Alive.” The men are fine, but the women get all the good stuff here.
The witty choreography by Karen Matheny, and spare but oh-so-‘70s set by Kevin Brown (a conversation pit! A bench seat that magically transforms into a bed!) add much charm to the production.
Sondheim and book author George Furth’s deep distrust of human nature is played mostly for laughs by White’s cast, to overall winning effect. And just as Bobby starts to mature from an overgrown boy into a man, so too does this cast finally find its footing. It’s a long show—but definitely worth sticking around for the ending.