Theater Review: Touring ‘Company’ at PPAC 

With Sondheim, what goes around comes around


PROVIDENCE – Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim redefined the Broadway musical form by being at once intelligent and heartfelt, melodic and musically enigmatic, traditional and highly unconventional. For many in the audience, Sondheim’s challenging, often complex work is an acquired taste best garnered after a second sitting, especially if it’s been over 40 years since the first.

Take his 1981 Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which focused on a friendship disintegrating in reverse chronology. The show closed after just 16 performances, due in large part to its idiosyncratic narrative structure and a too-clever Sondheim score that paired awkwardly with George Furth’s script. And yet, the limited engagement 2023 Broadway revival broke house attendance records and has been twice extended. The more time passes, it seems, the more audiences realize what a genius Sondheim was and come to better appreciate his artistry. Casting Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez in the leads of this production probably didn’t hurt.

Also enjoying success in revival is “Company,” another and better received Sondheim and Furth collaboration. The 1970 Tony Award-winning production was an intriguingly ambivalent portrayal of marital life in New York City during the Nixon administration, best captured in the lyrics “You're sorry-grateful, regretful-happy.” The show has since become a kitschy, outdated canonical classic performed on regional and community stages and revived with limited success on Broadway in 1995 and 2006. That is, until it was innovatively revised for a Tony Award-winning Broadway return in 2021 that ran successfully for 300 performances. That production is now on tour and currently on stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC).

About 95 percent of the original script and score remain intact, but the musical’s central character, Bobby – a Manhattan-based perennial bachelor who, on the verge of his 35th birthday, is being pressured by coupled friends to meet a mate and settle down – has been dramatically revisited. Now, in the capable hands of director Marianne Elliott, Bobbie is a Manhattan-based perennial bachelorette. She is portrayed by a wonderfully charismatic Britney Coleman who, like the rest of the cast, has mastered Sondheim’s demanding lyrics and music. 

With this shift in the show’s sexual politics, “Company” has become a more contemporary tale of a woman struggling to choose between the age-old expectation of marrying and raising a family with the often-contradictory tenets of modern feminism. The stakes are different and higher for a single female central character, made abundantly clear by the sound of a baby crying added to the tick tock of a clock during scene transitions. All this makes “Company” not only worth seeing again, but well worth another listen.  

Here, Bobbie’s “Marry Me A Little” – her Act 1-ending compromise of accepting marriage as long as “we’ll look not too deep, we’ll go not too far” – has never been sung with greater conviction. And her rendition of “Being Alive” – the show’s brilliant finale about giving in to love and accepting a relationship that allows “someone to hold you too close, crowd you with love and force you to care” – is delivered with an urgency that hits differently and more poignantly than the original. In line with the main character’s gender swap, the hilarious, lightning-fast-patter song “Getting Married Today,” previously performed by an anxiety-ridden runaway bride named Amy, is now given a virtuosic turn by Matt Rodin as Jamie before his same-sex wedding. 

Brilliant performances of other signature Sondheim songs are delivered as well, nicely supported by a nine-piece orchestra largely composed of local musicians under Charlie Alterman’s direction. A show highlight is Judy McLane’s incredible rendition of elder stateswoman Joanne’s alcohol-riddled toast to “The Ladies Who Lunch.” 

All this largely takes place within scenic designer Bunny Christie’s geometric, neon-framed modules that roll on and off the stage and serve as the ever-constraining spaces that house Bobbie’s close encounters with best friends and ex-lovers. Each scene includes clever choreography and staged tableaus courtesy of Liam Steel and dramatically lit by Neil Austin. 

Yet, even with the re-envisioning of the musical’s central character, the clever restaging, and the modernized costuming (also by Bunny Christie), nothing can mask the 1970’s style sentimentality that still courses through the script and score. Ironically, there's a lyric in the song “Sorry-Grateful” that states “Everything's different, nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged.” Yup. The musical is still hokey, as period pieces tend to be, and this is an unpleasant distraction. 

Still, Sondheim’s brilliance shines through. And with his passing during the show’s previews shortly before this revival opened on Broadway, “Company” reminds us of just how sorry-grateful we are.

BOB ABELMAN is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News.


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