Writers Theatre revives—and refreshes—Sondheim’s musical masterpiece.
Robert, the character at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 breakthrough musical, is turning 35 and single in a sea of “those good and crazy people,” his married friends. But if those friends worry about Bobby-baby-Robby-darling having aged past his sell-by date at 35, Company itself is now more than a decade longer in the tooth than its protagonist. And despite being stocked with some of Sondheim’s richest, most insightful numbers (like “Sorry-Grateful,” “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive”), both George Furth’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics are saddled with very 1970 cultural references and attitudes about sexual politics that can make the show, though it’s among my favorite musicals, feel like a relic.
That’s what makes William Brown’s new staging for Writers Theatre so remarkable in its near unalloyed success. Through judicious script cuts, smart casting choices and, to be fair, a few moments of pure gloss, Brown manages to make Company feel contemporary, and showed me new wrinkles in a piece I thought I knew through and through.
Todd Rosenthal’s deceptively simple scenic design frames the action in an enormous Manhattan apartment window, with a photorealistic, high-perspective backdrop looking down to a street far below. The effect, when Robert (Thom Miller) is isolated in front of this dizzying view, is to visually reinforce his feeling of loneliness and precariousness in the churning city.
The show, for those unfamiliar, plays out as a series of vignettes matching Robert with the various couples and with a trio of girlfriends. For those who are familiar, you’re sure to find something unexpected in what Brown and his sharp cast do with them.
The showdown between competitive couple Harry and Sarah plays like a whole new scene in the hands of James Earl Jones II and Alexis J. Rogers. A masterful Allison Hendrix, as nervous bride Amy, eschews manic comedy for real and pained indecision in “Getting Married Today.” (One shame is that Brown’s cuts leave Gabriel Ruiz and Tiffany Scott with too little to do as Peter and Susan.)
And Lia Mortensen delivers a surprising take on the cynical showstopper “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Somewhat younger than the character of Joanne is usually cast (as is Patrick Sarb, as Joanne’s husband, Larry), Mortensen exchanges saucy and wry for dark, biting anger tempered with a certain drunken wisdom. It’s an unconventional take that works.
Yet none of this would work without a Robert worth rooting for. Miller, an actor apparently new to Chicago stages, makes a strong impression in a role that’s often dismissed as a cipher or a snooze. As much as Bobby is often the passive presence in his book scenes, Miller shows us his man’s melancholy struggle.
When former girlfriend Kathy (an appealingly grounded Chelsea Morgan) tells him she’s moving away to get married, his response—“Did you just suddenly fall in love?”—sounds less accusatory and more plaintive, as though he’s asking for instructions. With equally strong support from Blair Robertson, Patrick Martin, Bernard Balbot, Jess Godwin and Christine Mild, you’d be hard pressed to find better Company to keep.
Writers Theatre. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Directed by William Brown. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.