Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Company" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I've been writing this blog for over two years, and I've found that some shows are easier to write about than others (which is not necessarily correlated to how much I like the show). But every once in a while, I'm so affected by a piece of theater that I go directly to the computer as soon as I get home, no matter the hour, because I immediately need to get my thoughts out of my head. Theater Latte Da's new production of the 1970 Sondheim musical Company* is one of those shows. I was so immersed and engaged in the world and characters created, that when the show was over, the lights came up, and the applause (reluctantly) died down, it was a jarring dose of reality. I feel like a broken record, but this is another brilliant production by Theater Latte Da. Friends, we are very very lucky to have Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek and this company that they created 15 years ago in our community. They just keep getting better and better.

I really only heard of Company last year when a filmed concert version starring Neil Patrick Harris was released to movie theaters. I immediately fell in love with it, so this production is coming at a great time for me. Company began as a series of short plays about married couples written by George Furth. When Stephen Sondheim came on board, it was turned into a musical and the character of Bobby was added as a central character tying all of the couples together. There's not much of a plot to it; it's more of a character study and an exploration of the ideas of marriage, friendship, and connection. Bobby is single and turning 35 amidst a bunch of married couples (something I can relate to, although this fall is not my first 35th birthday ;), and he spends time with each of them in turn, trying to figure out what it's all about. In typical Sondheim fashion, the songs are clever and witty and fast, with unexpected and beautiful melodies.

As usual with Latte Da shows, this one is perfectly cast. When I first heard that Latte Da was doing this show, I immediately thought of Dieter Bierbrauer as Bobby, and I was thrilled when I heard he had indeed been cast. Dieter's voice is perfection; there's nothing he can't do vocally. He has such control and emotion in his voice; his singing sounds effortless on these challenging Sondheim songs. As Bobby, everyone's best friend, Dieter rarely leaves the stage. But he's not always the center of attention. In fact that's a crucial part of this role and one Dieter does well - being the observer, the listener, the sounding board, as his friends unload their feelings and crazy ideas to him. Always attentive and engaged as he sits there silently, you can see the wheels turning as he takes it all in and adds it to his growing knowledge base of what this marriage thing might mean. The final song after he puts it all together ("add 'em up, Bobby") is "Being Alive," one of the greatest songs ever written for musical theater. Dieter's performance is a thing of beauty. Angry and defensive, then soft and vulnerable, finally a demand for a richer and fuller life.

Jody Briskey as Joanne with
Dieter Bierbrauer as Bobby
The five couples surrounding Bobby are also well-cast. Each couple is different, and are given a scene or two with Bobby to let the audience in to their particular brand of marriage. It's difficult to pick just a few standouts to mention, but I must start with Jody Briskey as Joanne, the three-times married slightly more mature and cynical friend who gets the best song, "Ladies who Lunch." Jody performed the song at this summer's Latte Da in the Park concert, and it was obvious then that she would be the one playing this role. Jody recently won an Ivey Award for her performance as Judy Garland in Beyond the Rainbow at the History Theatre last fall, and you can still hear Judy in her voice. I like to think of Jody as the Patti LuPone of the local theater scene (I'm not sure Patti ever played this role, but I heard her sing the song at Orchestra Hall a few years ago and it's that kind of song). Jody's performance of this Sondheim masterpiece is boozy and brilliant. In short, it's a showstopper.

Bobby (Dieter Bierbrauer, center) with his
good and crazy married friends
Also worth mentioning are the adorable Kim Kivens (she may be the smallest of stature in the cast, but not the smallest of voice) as the reluctant pot-smoking mom; Heidi Bakke as one of Bobby's girlfriends, a flight attendant who describes herself as "dumb and boring" in the most charming way (her duet with Bobby, "Barcelona," may be the cutest "morning after" song ever); David Darrow as the groom Paul, despite the fact that we only get a brief taste of his beautiful voice as he sings "Today is for Amy" to his frantic bride (I'm still waiting for the soundtrack of Rip, the Fringe show for which he wrote a bunch of really great songs that could stand on their own); Suzy Kohane as said frantic bride, who wins the prize for singing the most and fastest words in any song in the show, all while pushing her fiance away and still remaining likeable; and Julie Madden, who's a hoot as the dieting ka-ra-TE expert wife who has to remind her husband when and why he gave up alcohol.

Another important character in the play is New York City, my favorite city in the world (outside of Minnesota). In addition to the song "Another Hundred People (Just Got Off of the Train)" which perfectly describes the "city of strangers," there are numerous references to New York and New Yorkers. The city is also incorporated into the clever lighting and set design. Images are projected onto a couple of basic white boxes, as well as the backdrop, to represent the inside of a crowded home, a high rise apartment building with terraces, a park in different seasons, and the streets of New York as Bobby walks and ponders. One of the white boxes opens up to a bed (for the "Barcelona" scene), and a set of stairs leads to a second level providing a place for characters to observe the action as they come and go. There's not much choreography in the piece (Company is not a big song-and-dance kind of musical), but there are a few nice moments. In the opening number of Act II, "Side by Side by Side," Bobby sings and dances around his friend with an umbrella, and a kickline is formed. When all the men are telling Bobby "Have I Got a Girl for You," they're sitting on office chairs with a keyboard on their laps, emailing him, with choreographed keystrokes (choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrel). Touches like that and cell phones bring this show from the 70s into the 21st century, and with the relevant and timeless themes of relationships, it doesn't feel dated at all.

Company is playing at the Ordway McKnight Theater now through November 18. If you've never seen a Theater Latte Da show, well, you've been wasting your local theater-going life. Go see this show. The rest of their season looks to be just as amazing as this show, so you'll probably want to check that out too.

Theater Latte Da chose to do this show this season "as Minnesota grapples with the definition of marriage," but the production does not speak directly to the idea of marriage equality. What it does do is showcase five couples who have five different definitions of marriage. It seems to me, looking from the outside, that there are as many different definitions of marriage as there are marriages. So why would we want to constitutionally limit it to one definition, when it's never been that way? That was my take-away from the show; go see it and decide for yourself.

"Being Alive!"

*I received one complementary ticket to Opening Night of Company. However, I had already bought tickets for myself and 14 friends to go next week. Most of them are good and crazy married people, so I look forward to seeing the show again with them and hearing what they think of it.