Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland and her colleagues – including cast members whose career contributions span the troupe’s nearly 30-year history – provide ample energy and talent to their take on the musical that was a breath of fresh (and controversial) air when it opened on Broadway in 1970. And they remind us that the collection of characters and vignettes that comprise a plot-less, nonlinear look at marital mores can have emotional depth when lines from the witty and perceptive George Furth book as well as Sondheim’s revealing lyrics are delivered by top-flight actors.
Those seeing the show for the first time will find out quickly that New York City-based Robert (Patrick Waller) is turning 35 and his friends want to throw him a surprise birthday party. We see in no chronological order scenes where he interacts with those friends – five married couples – and three women he’s dating; along the way we’re treated to views on marriage pro and con that Robert grapples with as he ponders whether he will ever follow many of his acquaintances in taking a trip down the aisle.
Gary C. Hoff’s multi-level set and Phillip Franck’s multi-colored lights combine to create a motif I’ll simply describe as “festive bar,” though my intention is not to be either reductive or dismissive since their well-planned and beautifully executed designs set the mood for this show from the moment one enters Johnson Theater. Paper lanterns, a long bar with red-topped stools, a small red couch on wheels (similar to those used in the 2011 New York Philharmonic concert presentation of the musical) and matching red tables often bathed in blue, red, orange and purple hues conjure an urbane essence; large faux windows on the sides of the theater with images of such Big Apple landmarks as the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station emphatically place us in the city that is as much a character in this show as those played by the actors.
In the program notes Copeland says Tennessee Rep has “chosen to present this show in a timeless way…that doesn’t pretend to be realistic but rather celebrates the show’s inherently theatrical nature.” With contributions from her, Hoff, Franck and costume designer Trish Clark they’ve essentially succeeded in doing that. Perhaps the only flaw comes in sight-lines for those seated close to the stage and/or on the left or right end of the grandstand seating section as I was (I heard others in similar seats talking about this issue at intermission and after the performance); there are times in such numbers as the exuberant “Company” opening where it isn’t possible to see several actors while others have their backs to us. I doubt there’s a perfect way to handle blocking for a large cast occupying a raised playing space in the intimate black-box Johnson, but nevertheless there were audience members including me that missed some of the cast’s wonderful work as a result.
And that work is wonderful because the 14 performers in this show give us well defined characterizations though sung and spoken words, actions, reactions and Pam Atha’s fun-loving choreography (more on that later). I’ve seen productions of Company where Robert and the rest are little more than devices for a clever musical discussion of marriage; that’s not true here. One strong example: Megan Murphy Chamber’s long-overdue Tennessee Rep debut provides a physically-funny Amy whose rapid-fire delivery of “Getting Married Today” (ably abetted by Nancy Allen and Jeff Boyet) is completely intelligible and hilarious, but she also gives us a heart-wrenching moment when the scene suddenly turns serious.
Other standout moments include vice-baiting-turned-athletic-battle-of-the-sexes between Harry (David Compton) and Sarah (Shelean Newman) that unfolds during “The Little Things You Do Together” – Newman’s novel pronunciation of the word “karate” is just one of the delightful highlights in that scene – and bold-as-brass Marta’s (Laura Matula) emphatic ode to New York in “Another Hundred People.” In the latter instance there was a opening night problem with Matula’s microphone but it really didn’t matter since her vocal power needs no artificial amplification.
Matula’s Marta teams with, well, flighty flight attendant April (Mia Rose Lynne, who also has a lovely “Barcelona” with Waller) and the small-town-yearning Kathy (Melissa Hammans) to sharply chastise commitment-phobic Robert with “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”; before that we get a surprise announcement from Peter (Garris Wimmer) and Susan (J. Karen Thomas) where the experienced actors’ comic timing produces maximum laughs. Compton, Galen Fott and Chris Simonsen employ their fine voices to beautiful effect in “Sorry-Grateful”; and Fott in the character of Larry serves as effective foil during the sequence where the indelible presence and talent of Martha Wilkinson commands the stage as the eminently acerbic Joanne with a searing rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
At the core of Company is the deft and emotionally complex performance Waller turns in as dear old “Bobby baby.” Whether in bemusement during “Have I Got a Girl For You,” reflection as in “Someone is Waiting,” or desire as in “Barcelona” we get a warts-and-all character. The arc from Robert’s “Marry Me a Little” wishful thinking at the end of Act I to his urgent “Being Alive” outburst is believable because Waller totally commits to each clear-intentioned word, gesture and moment. Thanks to Waller Robert’s vulnerability is on display in various ways throughout this production, so we really care about him and his journey over the course of more than two hours.
I promised more about Atha’s choreography, so here it is: I’ve long enjoyed her vibrant and joyful work, and a great example of what she provides comes in the vaudeville-flavored, boater-hat-and-cane hellzapoppin’ dance moves and steps she provides for “Side by Side by Side” at the top of Act II. If you’re not grinning from ear to ear after such fun you may want to see a doctor.
Another theater vet whose work greatly enriches the shows in which he’s involved is Musical Director Timothy Fudge. He’s shown his gift for handling Sondheim before – 2008’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tennessee Rep demonstrated that – and here he’s in his element again leading the cast and the equally talented orchestra through the Tony-winning score. Fudge conducts Mike Casteel (trumpet), Russell Davis (keyboard), Christopher Donohue (bass), Sam Levine (woodwinds) and Sam Wiseman (drums, percussion) with skillful variations of pace from his graceful baton; he also has more than one enjoyable interaction with the actors as the orchestra plays in the audience’s view behind the long bar that sits upstage center.
This polished production caps a strong 29th main-stage season for Tennessee Repertory Theatre. The 2014 Ingram New Works Festival awaits in May, and then the 30th season starts this October with another work from the Sondheim canon (more about the upcoming year below). But before the three-decade mark officially arrives take a trip down to Tennessee Performing Arts Center for a Company where – to borrow from the great man’s lyrics – thoughts are shared and souls are bared in a most entertaining way.
30th Anniversary Season: Just before the performance Copeland announced the slate for 2014-15. In addition to the previously announced revival of Sweeney Todd that will open the 30th main-stage season and its annual holiday offering of A Christmas Story Tennessee Rep will produce Matthew Lopez’s critically acclaimed play The Whipping Man, Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Death of a Salesman and Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which had its Nashville premiere just a few weeks ago in a Tennessee Women’s Theater Project production).
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of Company directed by René D. Copeland continues through April 12 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. March 29, April 5 and April 12. Tickets (Starting at $45, or $11.50 for students with valid ID – some restrictions apply; there is also a “Sondheim Package” starting at $97.50 that including tickets to Company and Sweeney Todd that Tennessee Rep will present Oct. 4-25; and cabaret table seating upgrades are available for an additional $7.50 per ticket) are on sale at the TPAC box office, by phone at (615) 782-4040 or online at www.tennesseerep.org.
*Photos by Shane Burkeen courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.