I’d like to propose a toast—here’s to that invincible bunch at “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre” in Santa Monica California, where the latest production of their 2016-2017 season is “Company”–Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s landmark contemplation on “the little things you do together, hobbies you pursue together, savings you accrue together, that make perfect relationships.” The winner of six “Tony Awards”–including “Best Musical”, “Best Book Of A Musical”, “Best Score” and “Best Lyrics”, this new production of what many consider an all-time favorite officially opened on Saturday, March 4th.. Featuring a Grade-A book by Furth with catchy, intelligent, and at times dazzlingly complex and sophisticated, music and lyrics by Sondheim, the direction here is by Kristin Towers-Rowles, while the choreography is by Jamie Pierce and Musical Direction by Daniel Koh.
“Phone rings, door chimes in comes company! No strings, good times, room hums—Company!” in 1970, Broadway Virtuoso Stephen Sondheim wrote these words, essentially kicking off a ground-breaking new “concept” musical that boldly took on themes concerning marriage, relationships, single-hood and solitude, as seen through the eyes of one particular Bachelor named “Robert”. Told episodically and enlivened by an absolutely electrifying score that features such modern standards as “Being Alive”, “Another Hundred People”, “Barcelona” and “The Ladies Who Lunch”, the goings-on are framed by a surprise Birthday Party thrown by his married friends for their unattached pal: “May this year bring you Fame, Fortune—and your first wife” they toast him with. (Another perceptive element of Furth’s book is how each couple refer to him using different variations of his name—“Bob”, “Bobby”, “Robert”, “Robbie”…signifying that each sees him differently or that he fills a different purpose in their lives.) The show then unfolds through a series of (more or less) self-contained, at times poignant, frequently uproariously funny, and always scathingly truthful vignettes, with what story there is following this commitment-phobic Bachelor, three single women he’s been seeing, and five married couples who are all friends of his. Through his various encounters with them are explored the seminal themes of the show, central to all of them being Robert’s inner conundrum: facing his thirty-fifth birthday (which was considered much older back in the day) should he at last call his chronically single life quits and settle down—and if so, with who? “Bobby come on over for dinner, we’d be so glad to see you,” ‘all the crazy married people’ collectively intone, before adding “We looooove you!”
Although there’s nothing overtly ill-disposed for the younger set, this is definitely a musical for grown-up, about grown –ups, filled to overflowing with pointed insights and spot-on observations about grown-up relationships and what makes them work (or not.) Each individual episode is like a mini-‘playlet’ in and of itself (which is quite fitting, because word is that Furth compiled and adapted the libretto from eleven short one-act plays he had written on the subject of modern marriage.) Ms. Towers-Rowles shrewdly stays true to both the show’s roots and elemental intentions giving us, in essence, a stylish snapshot of 1970’s hang-ups, head-trips and highs vis-à-vis the institution of matrimony. Indeed, given that the comedy is steeped in timeless truths, her smaller touches here and there–and attention to more diminutive details yield big payoffs. If not so much a rollercoaster ride as more of a polished glide, her smooth, fluid, pacing keeps the happenings hopping while making particularly good use of the theater’s cozy over-all space (which also encompasses a remarkably spacious stage.) Perhaps most invigorating though, is how in this production she has discerningly opted to include “Marry Me A Little”–the now legendary number cut just days before the original production opened on Broadway, but since restored for all the noteworthy revivals—often at the expense of the second act’s dance sequence titled “Tick-Tock”; here however, she incorporates both–making this version feel much more ‘complete’ and satisfying.
The entire ensemble is genial and uniformly talented, yet while they all can lay claim to laudable singing prowess, the real focus here seems to be more on the pristine interpretation of the lyrics and the potent realities they express, as opposed to seeing how many thrilling ‘money notes’ they can hit. Happily, this is how they make this version of “Company” rise—eminently—above the rest. It is also especially felicitous as the lyrics they’re singing boast a much greater acuity than simply “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” or “I could’ve danced all night.” Still, as a group, their collective handling of the rousing inaugural salvo “Company” is a totally “turned-on” way to “launch” the show, wherein they also demonstrate some excellent harmonizing as well. Not to be overlooked or in any way marginalized either is the estimable contribution made by Jamie Pierce’s period-appropriate choreography. Starting with the groovy “Go-Go” gyrations interwoven into the opening, to the way the couples engage in an elegant waltz as part of “Someone Is Waiting”, or the lively “Vaudevillian” tap-steps of “Side By Side By Side” that culminates in a good, old-fashioned ‘kick-line” (which, on opening night, garnered tremendous applause,) every little moment goes a long way in recalling that momentous generation and, just as importantly, the feelings inherent to them. Pierce’s contribution even manages to transmogrify certain more intimate numbers into seemingly much larger ones just through how they’re staged. Such is the case with the inspired ‘parade’ of umbrellas in the midst of “Not Getting Married, or the jolly all-out circus that unexpectedly breaks out over the course of “What Would We Do Without You”. Even the curtain call is something to behold, which appropriately has all of the couples pairing off one final time to take their much deserved bows before joining in for a jivey reprise of the title number.
At the center of all the hub-bub is Paul Luoma as “Robert”. His is a thoroughly likeable, at times acerbic, “everyman”, and in addition to being gifted with a strong voice and accomplished delivery, he dexterously plays on all these strengths. More an actor who sings than a singer who acts, this is beneficial for this specific role, because of the profundity housed in just about every melodic line he’s given. Fortunately he has numerous opportunities to impress whether acting or singing, and this he does, while bringing terrific cohesion to the show’s many elements. His first solo, “Someone Is Waiting” is a genuine highlight of Act One, followed soon after with the gentle-spirited Act closer, “Marry Me A Little” (which, with its inclusion, effectively sets up what’s to come post-intermission.) Afterward, he continues to bring great energy and vivacity to the initial stanzas of “Side By Side By Side” (which quickly swells into a vibrant spectacle comprising all of the cast. Subsequently, he is equally brilliant rendering the show’s climactic ‘signature’ piece, “Being Alive”, further finding and conveying the depth of meaning ingrained within its words—and the production is all the more unforgettable for it!
The first couple “Bobby” introduces us to are, Suzanne Mayes and Craig Sherman as the hyper-competitive “Sarah” and “Harry”. He, we learn, is ‘on the wagon’ after several close calls with the law over his drinking, while she’s on a constant battle to keep her waistline from expanding (“Sarah Lee is the most phenomenal woman since Eleanor Roosevelt!” she exults.) Nonetheless, even if his weakness is the bottle and hers are pesky calories, they make the most of their segment adding a bit of comic ‘bite’ to their teasing and taunting of each other’s irksome habits and imperfections’ in “The Little Things You Do Together”, as one by one, the other couples enter from the wings to melodically ‘comment’ on what’s occurring (–a device cleverly employed throughout the whole show.) Immediately following, Sherman does an equally commendable job inaugurating the touching and pensively insightful, “Sorry-Grateful”. Joined by a trio of other “husbands”, this ranks as a winning intermezzo early on as they croon: “You’ll always be what you always were, which has nothing to do with—all to do with her.” Later on, it’s the wives’ turn to come together for “Poor Baby” as they mutually fret over their communal compadre’s negative nuptial status: “Poor baby! All alone; throw a lonely dog a bone, it’s still a bone,” they serenade; “We’re the only tenderness he’s ever known—poor baby!” (This, ironically, only to have them verbally pick-apart any girl he should per chance be interested in!)
Next, we meet Amanda Greig as “Susan” and Spencer Johnson as her perpetually on-the-make hubby, “Peter” (this two-some is so ‘hip’ and ‘happening’ that they literally get a divorce just so they can “live together”!) Of all the couples, they may have an ‘angle’ concerning their friendship with this single chum, but here too, this is kept judiciously subtle allowing the individual viewer to decide for themselves what the subtext may—or may not, be at play here. Both Greig and Johnson are similarly vocal forces to be reckoned with, and he does a fine job with his part in “Have I Got A Girl For You”, which sees all the ‘husbands’ reunite to extol the virtues of staying single while you can (“Marriage may be where it’s been, but it’s not where it’s at” they crow.) Shortly thereafter, there’s Devon Davidson who categorically charms as “Jenny”, described as ‘the eternal square’. Ms. Davidson is herself in possession of a sumptuous voice, which she demonstrates all through the proceedings—even doubling along with Ms. Greig as a team of “Wedding Singers” toward the close of the first act. Along with Brian O’Sullivan as her ‘other half’ “David”, the pair also supply an ample dose of laughs during their scene in which Robert joins them to try partaking in a little a marijuana (something also pretty scandalous for the times.)
“I’m POT-ted,” David laughs, taking another hit, once they ask him whether he’s ‘stoned’ yet. It’s interesting to note as well, that the humor in this scene ‘stems’—not so much from the depiction of three people getting stoned (which, yes, is hilariously portrayed in its own right) but rather, the more ‘innocent’ notion back when the show first debuted of what “getting high” was supposed to look like, (and what might take place if one did,) which doubtless many of the show’s early audiences may have intrinsically held. Either way, once his inhibitions have been freed, David obtusely let’s slip his personal thoughts on marriage: “I have everything—except freedom…which is everything!” As the act capers toward its conclusion, we become acquainted with Amy Coles as the eternally scattered “Amy” on what is supposed to be her wedding day, along with Brayden Hade is her eternally patient and supportive Groom, “Paul”. They each also can take pride in a shared triumph—but in different ways, while undertaking the frenzied and tongue-twisting “Not Getting Married Today”. Getting these lyrics out—let alone lending them such coherency–makes Ms. Coles’ impact on the show worthy of a standing ovation alone! Then again, Mr. Hade also has the golden opportunity to show off his rich vocal chops too, and he positively delivers the goods in this eccentric little crowd-pleaser as well.
Awesome support is also furnished by Janet Krajeski as the bitchy, caustic, “Grand-dame” of this little assemblage, “Joanne” who advises us at one point “It’s not so hard to be married, it’s quite the cleanest of crimes…it’s not so hard to be married—I’ve done it three or four times!” Krajeski excels in a role that has too often been painted as a mere caricature. Instead she sagaciously invests this woman with a fundamental honesty, astutely showing us the reasons why “Joanne” is who she is. As a singer, she capably lends her support now and then to most of the group endeavors, but truly comes into her own in the latter half—pulling out all the stops for the iconic 11 O’clock showstopper, “The Ladies Who Lunch”(–one of the very best observational “Character” songs written post Broadway’s “Golden Age”.) Not just simply hitting all the right notes, she incredibly breathes life into all the cynicism, bitterness and pain seething just barely beneath “Joanne’s” brassy exterior that her near-ruthless candor is (futilely) attempting to conceal. “The ones who follow the rules, and meet themselves at the schools—too busy to know that they’re fools! Aren’t they a gem?! (I’ll drink to them…)” she spits, allowing the number to build steadily until it’s a full-on knock-out. In doing so, she ultimately imparts the psyche of a fragile individual who needs the world to notice her, and to this end will gibe, badger, and bellow until it damn-well does. As her husband “Larry”, Larry Gesling himself does a remarkable job as the solid, stalwart partner she needs–the one who adores her regardless of whatever she can throw at or up to him. Their characters, and the actions they undertake, make one of the more forceful (if not always readily recognized) statements within the show concerning what it really takes “to make perfect relationships.”
As the trio of “Girlfriends” Robert keeps on-hand (and in a state of confusion as to his sincerity and romantic intentions) each exudes great personality through their different roles. Krystal Jasmin Combs is Kathy, the pretty, perky “Girl Next-Door” whose big (–make the GIGANTIC–) moment occurs with the Act Two dance interlude, “Tick-Tock” which is seriously worth waiting for!
Sultry, stupendous and breath-taking all at once, “Tick-Tock” is by far, the show’s dynamic “crowning glory” as far as its terpsichorean offerings go. Right up there with her, is Alicia Reynolds-Luoma as the ‘Hippie’, “Marta”. Presenting us with a free-spirit and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, (think of her as something akin to the “Me Decade’s’” answer to “Sex And The City’s” Carrie Bradshaw.) Upon explaining her feelings for the city she’s so proud of, she enthuses “The pulse of this city is me!” Ms. Luoma also shines (–make that ‘incandesces’) with the amazing rapid-fire delivery of “Another Hundred People”. Meanwhile, Emilia Sotello’s animated take on the pleasantly vapid flight-attendant “April” earned her some humongous laughs and scores major comic points, largely involving her second act “seduction” scene (where, in the end our man Rob may have gotten more than he bargained for—a girl who actually stays overnight!) She too, an deliver a great song, and her duet with Mr. Luoma, a “post-delectation”/“morning-after malaise” descant called “Barcelona” is an unqualified victory for them both. Then, in concert with Mesdames Luoma and Combs, the three make delightful music together with their “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” being a first-rate achievement all-around (Think of them as sort of like “The Andrew Sisters” in hot-pants!)
William Wilday’s dapper multi-level set design provides a more than serviceable space for the action to be played out on, while at the back is an expansive silhouette of the Manhattan sky-line circa 1970. To this, various set pieces are brought on and off as needed—some of which also help recall the era, such as the big, multi-colored bean bag chairs utilized in one scene, or a “Mod” couch in another. With all the orchestrations pre-recorded, this makes the crisp, inventive sound design (including the city-soundscapes heard upon entry) by Bob Marino, Anne Gesling and Daniel Koh even more vital to the show’s success—in fact, on opening night it was Koh himself who was working the sound board cueing all the songs! Likewise, Ovation Award-winner, Michael Mullen’s costume designs are an out-and-out wonder—epitomized by some of the liveliest colors and styles this side of a Haight-Ashbury consignment shop! Among them, expect to encounter plenty of pastel leisure-suits (for both men and women,) love beads, fringed-vests, and go-go boots–all of which firmly recall those far-out and funky fashions that earmarked the years infamous for “Watergate”, “The Partridge Family”, “Spiro Agnew” and “Rodney Allen Rippy”!
For an amazing exercise in musical theater at its most affecting, “commit” to paying a visit to “those good and crazy people—your friends” at “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre”; “Someone is waiting”—for you to see “Company”! The show plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM; having opened on Saturday, March 4th, “Company” is set to play weekends through Sunday, April 1rst, 2017 at “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre” located at 2627 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica California. (A special audience “Talk-back” with the cast and crew will occur directly after the performance on Friday evening, March 10th.) Tickets and reservations can be obtained by calling the theater box-office at: (310) 339-5553 or on-line, by logging onto: www.morgan-wixson.org (Senior, Student, and Group discounts are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By jdcphotography.zenfolio.com Courtesy of Marc Ostroff, Annie Claire Hudson & “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre”; Special Thanks To Kristin Towers-Rowles, Jamie Pierce, Daniel Koh, Marc Ostroff, Annie Claire Hudson, and To The Cast & Crew Of “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre’s” 2017 Production Of “Company” For Making This Story Possible.