Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Broadway tour of "Company" at the Orpheum Theatre

On my first trip back to NYC after Broadway reopened in late 2021 after an unprecedented 18-month intermission, one of my must-sees was Company. Director Marianne Elliott's reimagining of the 1970 Sondheim musical played West End in 2018-2019 to great success, but had only a handful of previews on Broadway in March 2020 before everything went dark. It finally opened in December of 2021, and this genius production of a brilliant Sondheim creation was worth the wait. Flipping the gender of the main character (which I've been calling for practically since I first saw the show), as well as other slight tweaks, brought this 50-year-old musical into the 21st century with a whole new exploration of relationships and gender roles. I loved everything about it. And now, this brilliant revival is finally here in Minneapolis, but only for one week! Sondheim fans, fans of classic musicals, fans of forward-thinking music-theater - get yourself to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis now! Click here for info (including info about student/educator rush tickets) and to purchase tickets.

The 1971 Tony Award best musical winner, 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/Bobbie (originally a man, now a woman) 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 through a series of vignettes. Bobby/Bobbie is single and turning 35 amidst a bunch of married couples, and he/she 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.** Recognizable tunes, even to those who've never seen the show, include "The Ladies who Lunch," "Side by Side by Side," and of course, the showstopper "Being Alive."

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Not only is the gender of Bobby/Bobbie flipped, but so are several of the characters; the square stay-at-home parent is a man with a wife who works out of the home, the "runaway bride" is a gay man afraid of marrying his too-perfect boyfriend, and three men complain about dating Bobbie ("You Could Drive a Person Crazy" - a highlight). It's just a genius way to explore the ideas of marriage, relationships, and gender norms in a fresh new way.*

Another brilliant thing about this revival is that it's staged as if this is Bobbie's dream or hallucination, a take I've never seen before. It's as if she's wandering through her memories observing her life, at times literally when another actor dons Bobbie's signature (and fabulous) red jumpsuit while our Bobbie observes. Combined with the clever set that includes trap doors and over- and under-sized props, it has almost a "through the looking-glass" feel, or "ghost of Christmas past." It's like we're inside of Bobbie's brain as she wanders around trying to make sense of this crazy thing called marriage.*

the cats of Company (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Also brilliant is this touring cast. Britney Coleman is so wonderful as Bobbie, a lead role that also includes a lot of sitting on the side observing, and she does both well. She's very easy and natural and fun as she's hanging with her friends, amused and perplexed by their antics. But when she takes center stage on the two big songs she takes charge - curious and excited in "Marry Me a Little," questioning and desperate and revelatory on "Being Alive." She's a Bobbie who is easy to relate to, root for, and want to be friends with. 

But as this is Sondheim, Britney is not the only star; everyone in the 14-person cast has a moment or two to shine. Highlights include Minnesota girl Emma Stratton (listen to our interview with her here) as the working mother and wife of the square (Will Blum); Kathryn Allison and James Earl Jones II as the jujitsu couple; Matt Rodin as Jamie, singing one of the fastest songs in musical theater "Getting Married Today;" and Judy McLane as the world weary Joanne singing the iconic "The Ladies who Lunch." Also fun to see a few familiar faces among Bobbie's potential boyfriends - Tyler Hardwick "singing like a dream" from the Once on this Island tour a few years ago, and David Socolar the "charmingly awkward" doctor/love interest from the Waitress tour just last year. There's really not a weak link among this cast, creating specific and interesting characters in these little scenes, performing the modern and inventive choreography (by Liam Steel), and singing this tricky score full of gorgeous harmonies, which all sounds fantastic combined with the ten-piece pit orchestra (including six local musicians) led by Music Director Charlie Alterman.

The aforementioned clever set consists of boxes framed in neon - one square for Bobbie's apartment that feels appropriately claustrophobic when the entire cast is crammed inside it, a longer box that's a living room or a kitchen or a bedroom, with a small bathroom on the other side. The three boxes are moved around on and off stage, along with the frame of a terrace and the front stoop of row houses. There's also a clever use of huge neon letters that form the title. The effect is crisp, modern, and a little bit sterile like an odd dream, contributing to the inside-of-Bobbie's-brain feeling. Besides Bobbie's fabulous red jumpsuit (that I wish they sold at the merch table), the costumes are character defining, and also include several changes for the wedding scene (white) and the club scene (black). (Scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie, lighting design by Neil Austin.)

I'm quite certain Company will be the highlight of this year's Broadway season at the Orpheum - smart and funny, moving and relatable, with a gorgeous score that's flawlessly performed. Maybe someday Minneapolis (inarguably one of the best theater towns in the nation) will get these shows for two weeks or more, but until then, you need to act fast to see what could be the best production of one of Sondheim's best musicals before it leaves town. Shows once or twice daily through November 19.

with the iconic neon letters at the Museum of Broadway in NYC