Saturday, October 17, 2015

Company bt Stephen Sondheim

Company Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Everyman Theatre, Canberra.  Director – Jordan Best; Musical Director – Tim Hansen; Choreographer – James Batchelor; Set Designer –Michael Sparks; Lighting Designer – Kelly McGannon; Sound – Steve Allsop; Technical Manager – Hamish McConchie (Eclipse Lighting and Sound).  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre October 16-24, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 16

Highly skilled, entertaining, and quite original in style, this production of a 1970 musical “comedy” succeeds despite the unlikely nature of Sondheim’s writing. 

The casting has brought together singers who can act and actors who can sing from among the best musical theatre performers in Canberra-Queanbeyan.  They, the chorus (named The Vocal Minority), and the nine-piece orchestra handle the quirky music beautifully –if that’s the right language to describe Sondheim.

The mood was upbeat throughout on opening night with a very responsive audience, even if somewhat biassed towards friends and family on stage.  For me this is an important value of our local theatre: our performers include many with professional training and experience, while we still have the ‘feel’ of a country town without the pretensions of the big-city-slickers.

The success of the show depends on Jordan Best’s may-I-say-it? Australian approach.  It’s all very well for the Americans to take Sondheim’s representations of heterosexual marriage seriously and therefore Bobby becomes a sentimental figure “poor baby”.  Best has said, let’s not bullshit – this is comedy, so it’s got to be funny.  She has kept the show absolutely New York America, but exaggerated the way all of these characters behave, including Bobby, to get as near as Sondheim’s lyrics and dialogue allow to satire.

It can’t work all the time, considering the quote from Dr Duncan Driver’s very informative article on the history of the show, where Sondheim said “Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems.  These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.”

What pretentious bullshit!  Perhaps the nearest to ‘in their faces’ – which means satire for Jordan Best – is the Ladies for Lunch scene, where Joanne does her serious best to race off Bobby: but he won’t smoke her cigarette!  Well done Karen Vickery in this role.  And well done Jarrad West, whose Bobby was a very knowing 35-year-old, rather than some kind of innocent booby as he appears in some other productions, available on YouTube.

If you dislike my argument, consider that the well-known popular play in Australia in 1971 was David Williamson’s Don’s Party.  If you want to think of Company as the equivalent of a musical Don’s Party, have a good look at the depth of character in the marriage relationships in Williamson’s writing.  Sondheim’s characters are shallow cardboard cutouts in comparison.

Four images stand out for me from Best’s Company: Ladies for Lunch for satire; the karate scene for great slapstick comedy by Jordan Best herself as Sarah; the I’m (Not) Getting Married Today scene for frantic comedy by Phillipa Murphy as Susan; and the story of the butterfly for beautiful timing by Amy Dunham as April.

So whatever Stephen Sondheim thought he was doing, our Everyman Theatre production has picked up the good bits, made fun at every opportunity and avoided the American tendency for sentimentality.  It’s still an odd ending, as Bobby (on the third, or is it fourth, version of his 35th birthday party) simply stays away until the company have decided not to wait, leaving him to his quiet life in his favourite apartment.  I’m not sure what Sondheim meant this to mean, but in this lively show of terrific singing and playing, it doesn’t matter.

It’s just a good way to finish, with the mysterious “But Alone, Is Alone.  Not Alive”.