Casting is at least 80 percent of a production. It’s particularly crucial to a challenging and sophisticated Stephen Sondheim show. Insight Theatre Company's perplexing interpretation of his landmark concept musical "Company" suffers from miscasting and lack of identity.
While there are a few standout numbers and several good performances, the overall result is airless and lethargic.
For a piece focused on complicated married relationships, at least half of the couples don't seem to like each other, much less love each other.
The unconventional musical comedy opened in 1970 and changed musical theater, for it was the first to explore adult themes in a non-linear way. Nominated for 14 Tony Awards, it won six, including Best Musical.
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The book by George Furth is a series of vignettes that explore modern relationships through Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor, and his friendship with five couples and the three women he's dating. He's skittish about commitment and wonders why.
This musical can be cynical, but also tender, visceral and electric. An elegant 2006 production won the Tony Award For Best Revival, and Sam Mendes directed an acclaimed brisk, provocative London show in 1995. (I recommend the DVD of the 2011 New York Philharmonic special event starring Neil Patrick Harris, too).
Because of its demanding music, "Company" is not done very often, and rarely done well in regional, community or school theater — I've seen six here in the past 44 years. Performers must be cast who not only can sing moving, witty and intricate Sondheim songs with feeling but understand the story's complexities.
The show is a snapshot of society's mores in 1970, as the '60s sexual revolution caused traditions to break down. Living together, delaying marriage, and divorce became common. Although updated slightly by Sondheim and company in the 1990s, the work reflects its era.
Set in New York City, the urbane characters are supposed to reflect that frenetic environment. In contemporary terms, Bobby (Martin Fox) is a player, so why is he dressed in baggy dad khakis and drab rumpled blue shirt with an ill-fitting blazer?
Laura Hanson's costume design is puzzling. Several women sport frumpy outfits, with Joanne's black cocktail dress and Amy's lace wedding dress the sole exceptions.
Director Doug Finlayson has set it in an indiscernible time period, because they have cell phones, which don't work with the dialogue.
A lack of character development is obvious in some harder-edged roles. More energy was needed in the first act's numbers while the second act picked up some momentum.
Of the couples, Jon Hey and Cherlynn Alvarez have the best chemistry as happy married-with-kids David and Jenny, and their performances are solid, although the recent college graduate's age is noticeable.
Matt Pentecost and Stephanie Long excel, too, as betrothed Paul and Amy. Strong vocalists, Long nails the extremely difficult, fast-paced lyrics of "Getting Married Today," and Pentecost robustly sings his parts — one of the show's highlights.
Phil Leveling and Meghan Baker don't fit bickering Harry and Sarah, and Cole Guttmann is too young as sexually conflicted husband and father Peter. Leveling and Baker are nimble, however, and carry off their physical karate demonstration.
Taylor Pietz as Susan, the Southern belle getting divorced, doesn't have a solo, but her beautiful soprano can be heard in "Getting Married Today" and group numbers.
As for the single ladies, Melissa Gerth is statuesque and lithe as Kathy, crisp in 'You Can Drive a Person Crazy." She also choreographed the show. "Tick-Tock," the fantasy dance number during Robert's bed scene with April is often cut, so points for at least trying, but it's still awkward.
Bailey Reeves is winning as pretty and naïve April, the flight attendant Robert dates who couldn't pass a Mensa test.
Samantha Irene (Auch) is unsuitable as quirky Marta. She is unable to reach the high notes in the dramatic "Another Hundred People," and isn't believable as a feisty free spirit, despite wearing a leather jacket.
"Another Hundred People" is supposed to be a showstopper, and is one of the show's signature songs. What a letdown.
Those delivering the other signature songs fare better. Martin Fox, who has a good voice, handles Bobby's 'Being Alive" with all the intensity required. But he's uneven expressing confident Bobby's dilemmas.
Laurie McConnell sings "The Ladies Who Lunch" superbly, conveying world-weary Joanne's sarcasm, contempt and regrets. She also delivers acerbic quips with expert comic timing.
Michael Brightman, unfortunately, is nondescript as her third husband Larry, and looks very uncomfortable in the role. He can't get a grip on his parts in "Sorry-Grateful" and "Have I Got a Girl For You."
The chic split level set design by Peter and Margery Spack is the shining star, and Finlayson's staging of the cast on two levels worked well. But David Blake's lighting design did them no favors, for they were often in the dark or shadows. Brett Harness's sound design execution was rocky opening night.
When I was 15, I watch D.A. Pennebaker's 1971 documentary on the making of the "Original Cast Album: Company" on PBS. It changed my life. I bought the LP, which sparked my deep admiration for all things Sondheim. Performances of "Into the Woods" and "Sunday in the Park with George" have elicited tears, for he can touch our souls.
A cabaret singer said that Sondheim songs probably shouldn't be sung by people under 35, and he might be right. But they always should be sung by people who can interpret those incomparable lyrics, not just sing well.
That's why it all comes back to casting.
- Who: Insight Theatre Company
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 3
- Where: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 530 E. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
- Information 314-556-1293 or www.InsightTheatreCompany.com