All In for ‘Company’ at PNC Broadway

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (center) and the North American Tour of 'Company.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (center) and the North American Tour of ‘Company.’

Theater and musical reviews such as the many written for Entertainment Central throughout the year serve to spur a decision for Pittsburgh audiences. Our reviews hopefully offer either sufficient accolades or relevant disappointments to help you decide whether or not to purchase tickets. Reviewers as fortunate as I get to see more shows than our own wallets would allow. And, so, I was fortunate to see the touring company of Company, part of PNC’s Broadway in Pittsburgh series at the Benedum Center. After premiering on Broadway in 1970, last night’s revival production is as much a melodious enigma as Stephen Sondheim and George Furth first put forth. But it comes with minor upgrades and one major difference. The central character, Bobby, who his friends worry will “age out” of any good opportunity to marry, is now Bobbie, whose friends worry no less about her. 

Director Marianne Elliott, who launched the gender-swapping revival of Company in London’s West End in 2018, has given new life to Sondheim’s early great hit. The dilemma for this reviewer is not informing Pittsburgh audiences whether or not to purchase a ticket—indeed, they should (if they can!)—but based on….what? Is the show still a great melodious enigma? Or is it an even better show for having switched the character genders? My first quick answer is, “yes!,” it’s still a great show. My second answer is, “not sure,” because—let’s be honest—without this major change (or is it a smart gimmick?) Company might seem somewhat antiquated today. (Hey, it’s only been a mere fifty years since its lauded premiere.)

Singularly Sondheim

For those not familiar with Sondheim’s ode to the angst and confusion of heterosexual bachelors in 1970s New York, the story is a series of disconnected vignettes about married or divorcing couples who consider the central character important in their varied relationships. There is no one story that weaves through one apartment and into the next (although the clever moving sets would have you think otherwise). There is but one character, Bobby, and now Bobbie who witnesses marriage in its many twisted, frantic and funny stages. And each scene is beautifully enveloped with a clever song. Some tunes are dark, some are comical; the very best are gut-wrenchingly sad, if not breathtakingly honest. Many, like “Getting Married Today,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Another Hundred People,” “Barcelona,” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” are all dyed in the wool classics. It would be ignorant to suggest that no one will ever write a show tune with more depth and sincerity than Sondheim. And, so, for Pittsburgh audiences who cut their musical teeth listening to Sondheim’s wonders—or for those who never have—Company cannot be missed.

Characters Keeping Company

Vodka stingers are the drink of choice in 'Company.' Derrick Davis as Larry, Judy McLane as Joanne, and Britney Coleman as Bobbie.

Vodka stingers are the drink of choice in ‘Company.’ Derrick Davis as Larry, Judy McLane as Joanne, and Bobbie.

Britney Coleman takes the lead as Bobbie whose thirty-fifth birthday has arrived. Without any exposition describing her career, family, or childhood, she appears as a woman who has found herself very much at home in the workaday world of Manhattan. Bobbie has lots of friends. Harry and Jenny challenge each other not to drink or eat sweets. Long-married Susan and David have decided to divorce. Paul and Jamie are, at last, getting married. An odder couple, Sarah and David explore new highs to their seemingly routine relationship. Joanne, now married to her fourth husband, enjoys her younger friend as much as she does playing the wizened woman who has seen it all. And then there are assorted men, Andy, PJ, and Theo, all seemingly shallow-minded, who appear in Bobbie’s bedroom. But, then, as depicted in Bobbie’s dreamtime, everyone appears in her bedroom at one point or another, if not altogether. Time is, after all, fluid, and George Furth’s book asserts no progression as to which lessons about life and loneliness Bobbie learns first or last. Bobbie is a watcher; she sees a world of trouble, yet tries to learn the truth. Sondheim’s audiences, experienced or not, will find it all funny. The opening night Pittsburgh audience found it hysterical.

Perhaps one of the more clever elements to Company––and there are many––is that this is an ensemble company of earnest actors. With the exception of Bobbie and Joanne, most any of the evening’s cast of characters can be performed by most any other member in the show. As such, and in particular to the evening’s program credits, it would be pure folly to cite the exceptional work of any one actor whose role may be different in any other performance of this tour. As the elder Joanne, Judy McLane takes on the role made famous by many before her. Elaine Stritch, Lynn Redgrave, and Patti LuPone each had famous turns as the rich older friend who loves her vodka stingers with which she famously toasts “The Ladies Who Lunch.” McLane does not disappoint. For many Sondheim fans, this is the torch song that allows more experienced actresses to prove they still have the fire. And McLane’s clarity of voice is welcomingly less riddled than her elder predecessors. Other standouts on stage are Marina Kondo as Susan, happy to divorce her longtime partner, and in a secondary role, as the Priest who may or may not perform the marriage ceremony of Jamie and Paul (Kenneth Quinney Francoeur and Jhardon DiShon Milton). As one of Bobbie’s single love interests, the character of Theo performs Sondheim’s tribute to public transportation in “Another Hundred People.” The program would suggest that David Socolar should get high praise for this performance, but it may be that Javier Ignacio wowed the audience in that dynamic number. It really matters not; there’s not a weak link in this chain of exceptional talent.

But That Ain’t All

Bobbie's bed is a scene of magical happenings. Seen here with Jacob Dickey as Andy.

Bobbie’s bed is a scene of magical happenings. Seen here with Jacob Dickey as Andy.

Britney Coleman’s lead as Bobbie proves her to be charming, comfortable and commanding. It’s hard not to enjoy her stage presence, although at times she appeared more amused with her friends than their situation might warrant. Yet, if Sondheim has ever given one character a song that must fill the entire theater, Bobbie’s “Being Alive” is that show stopper. And very fortunately, it’s the show’s last, because, indeed, when delivered as Sondheim intended, the show must end. Coleman brought her full game and, with tears flowing in the balcony, mezzanine and orchestra, dropped the proverbial mic.

Credits and Credos

A story assembled from disconnected vignettes, Company is made seamlessly fluid with a set that rolls, shrinks, zooms and slides in most every direction. Scenic and costume designer Bunny Christie deserves curtain call cheers. One particular scene brings everyone onstage in the most surprising kitchen Manhattan may have ever seen. And that’s not to give short shrift to Ms. Christie’s clever costuming which calls for quick changes and intimate sensibilities. Neil Austin, lighting designer, conquers the challenges of highlighting cast members of which as many as fourteen get the spotlight in the same scene. Chris Fisher gets deserved credit for certain illusions upon which the show depends. Birthday candles are one. A bedroom that magically produces lovers is another. Ian Dickinson designed the all important “sound” for this show, while Keith Caggiano took charge of the touring sound design. Above all, and so often overlooked, is the orchestrator, orchestra and musical director who, by championing Sondheim’s complex rhythms and harmonies, make it all seem easy. David Cullen, Paul Staroba, Michael Aarons, Charlie Alterman, Joel Fram are just a few of the many who delivered Sondheim’s music in perfect measure.

Finely tuned, funny. and sad, Company is a treat for all who have fallen in love with Sondheim and for those, like Bobbie, who are seeking to find it still. Company tickets may be available through April 21 at Benedum Center, 237 7th Ave., Cultural District.

Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

C. Prentiss Orr is a Pittsburgh-based writer who covers theater and other topics for Entertainment Central. He is the author of the books The Surveyor and the Silversmith and Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred.


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