By Bill Hirschman
Audiences must evolve their way of appreciating theater as new ways of presenting shows appear. The thoroughly staged concert musical is nothing new in New York City, but it was a rarity in South Florida until a few years ago when director Clive Cholerton began mounting them at the Caldwell Theatre and now at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Which bring us to the glowing joy and slight frustration suffusing Dramaworks-Cholerton’s third entry in its Musical Theatre Masters series, an unassailably well-crafted, well-performed, downright entertaining production of Stephen Sondheim’s Continental Divide of American theater, Company.
Cholerton and musical director Paul Reekie lead a generally terrific cast applying admirable skill, intelligence, wit and emotion to superb but challenging material. But as with Dramaworks’ equally fine Man of La Mancha last month, a dimension and a depth are missing. In this case, it’s the wrenching urban angst, the desperate loneliness carefully camouflaged and damped down under studied sophisticated miens.
But now having seen several of these staged concerts, including one of the new musicals this summer at the Theatre At Arts Garage, it is clear that the unavoidable culprit is simply limited rehearsal time.
While many such outings are lucky to get a few hours of run-through, Dramaworks has wisely and generously underwritten a full week’s rehearsal with a primarily Equity cast. Cholerton and his talented troupe have used that time well. Scripts perch on music stands as a safety net, but the performers have it all pretty cold, allowing Cholerton to move them all over the stage, even adding some minimal choreography.
What’s missing is that extra level that actors can only reach with a little more time to experiment, explore and excavate from their souls. In the end, it is a concert, beautifully gilded with genuine acting and inventive movement, but still a concert. Yearning for a fully-fleshed out production is bringing an unfair yardstick to the evening. So the take-away lesson is that audiences must recalibrate their expectations just as Florida Stage trained them to do when seeing first productions of new work.
For instance, the audience can savor Laura Hodos’ unique “The Ladies Who Lunch” or Wayne LeGette’s warm caress of “Sorry-Grateful” or Alexandra Hale’s manic “Getting Married Today.”
But when the sole out-of-state ringer here, the affable and talented Quinn VanAntwerp sang the iconic cry of the heart “Being Alive,” some of us leaned forward trying to physically will him to dig deeper into the hero’s unleashed anguish and self-knowledge.
Company examines the emotional growth of Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor in New York City whose most meaningful relationships are as the best friend and quite-welcome third-wheel to five dysfunctionally married couples. On his birthday, we see earlier scenes of him watching and analyzing those marriages, contrasted with scenes depicting his inability to commit to serious relationships with three girlfriends. The show is often described as plotless although a well-directed and well-acted production such as the recent revival starring Miamian Raul Esparza depicts an arc of growing pressure until Robert realizes “it’s better living it than looking at it” and becomes ready to commit.
It’s seems a bit unfair to carp since we should be grateful that the staged concert makes it possible that anyone is doing La Mancha or Camelot or Company at all. Yes, others do these works (Broward Stage Door is producing Company next season). But their budgets often bar them from the high caliber (and relatively well paid) talent that Dramaworks does. So this paradigm of stripped down concert versions keep classic musical theater alive.
“Stripped down” means a chamber version using most if not all of the script and score. Production values are severely limited but inventive, especially Sean Lawson’s witty period photos and videos. The orchestra is only Reekie’s piano although the arrangements are lush enough that you don’t feel overly cheated. But in the first time we’ve heard of it being done, George Furth’s script has been tinkered with. Two of the five couples have vanished; their scenes and songs have been given to the survivors, although at least one scene disappeared. To bolster the vocal heft of the group numbers, the girlfriends sing in the background; in the original Broadway production, an off-stage chorus was also used to sweeten the sound.
As with La Mancha, which had a different musical director, a few ballads are played just a tad too fast, making it tough for the actors to work with the lyrics. Conversely, the difficult triple-paced patter songs, Hale’s “Getting Married Today” and Natalia Coego’s dead-on “Another Hundred People” seemed just right both in pacing and in the impossible task of enunciating the pretzel lyrics.
Cholerton has a real feel for staging with an almost cinematic smoothness. His triumph in pulling off such difficult material with his actors in such a short time could shame some people with triple the rehearsal time and budget.
He has cast this with performers as skilled at acting as singing. All are especially deft with comedy such as Maribeth Graham and LeGette’s competitive couple who know exactly where to slide in the knife and how to salve the wounds with love afterward. Hale, whose day job is as a marketing associate at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers, should be welcomed back anytime she wants and she gets fine support from Nick Duckart as her patient fiancé. Hodos is, as always, delightful. Her Joanne isn’t as acerbic as her predecessors, but she brings a different and valid vibe to the “Ladies Who Lunch.” Barry J. Tarallo makes his love for his verbally dismissive wife perfectly credible. The trio of girlfriends are also up to the task: Katherine Amadeo’s “just friends” Kathy, Leah Sessa’s flighty stewardess April and Coego’s young woman passionately in love with New York City.
VanAntwerp is a competent hand – a veteran of three years on Jersey Boys – with a sweet open face and solid enough voice, but he makes the least impression. Bobby is a deceptively difficult role. He has to have enough innate magnetism and depict just enough banked angst to hold the audience’s attention as the fulcrum of the entire show, even though he really has little to do but react for the first third of the evening. VanAntwerp doesn’t have the chops yet to be able to summon that up in a week’s time. This is grossly unfair, but I would have loved to hear LeGette do this role a decade ago, or Duckart try it now.
Keep in mind that as one of my favorite musicals of all time, I’m setting the bar almost absurdly high. This production is so solid that anyone who loves Sondheim should travel to West Palm Beach to entertain Company.
Theatre Geek Sidebar: Debuting in 1970, Company transformed musical theater into its adulthood as an entertaining art form, even more than Showboat or Oklahoma. The urban sensibility, the pop music vibe, the ambivalence, the 20th century neurosis all had been dabbled with in works like Promises, Promises and Lady in the Dark. Even the concept musical concept had been pioneered earlier by Company’s director, Harold Prince on Cabaret. Only the non-linear story-telling was startlingly new to mainstream Broadway musical audiences.
But those skeins never had been synthesized so brilliantly into an alloy so unique to itself, a work that reached out toward something new. If you weren’t an adolescent or older at the time, it’s nearly impossible to explain what a tectonic shift it signaled to the status quo in 1970.
Of course, it also served as a fanfare announcing the arrival of an important new voice. This Soundhelm guy who wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Styne’s Gypsy and had recently written something based on the Roman farces of Plautus for Zero Mostel, now emerged as… Stephen Sondheim.
Company runs through August 18 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Running time 2 hours excluding a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $35. Call (561) 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.