This week’s column spotlights a new Seattle staging of a classic Stephen Sondheim show, and a cast recording of a musical “fable” about the legendary leading lady of one of his early efforts, Gypsy. The profound impact of Stephen Sondheim on the Broadway musical, post Rodgers and Hammerstein and pre-Rent, cannot be overstated.
The Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company opened in late 1970. It took home 6 Tony Awards as part of the 1970-71 season, including Best Musical, Best Book (Furth), and, not one, but two for Mr. Sondheim. This was the only year the awards were given separately for Music and Lyrics.
The show has seen frequent revivals and many regional productions in the ensuing decades, including a gender mash-up version by the late, lamented Alice B. Theatre here in Seattle, and a 5th Avenue Theatre staging a decade ago. Now Twelfth Night Productions Company, a non-AEA theatre employing some fine veteran and up and coming talents, opened its production of Company this past Friday. The material shines, even when the direction by Richard Buckley as well as certain performances falter.
The central character in Company is Bobby (or Robert, or Robby, or Bob, as a repeated choral interlude advises). He’s a likable, 35-year-old, Manhattan male, circa 1970. His closest friends are 5 heterosexual couples. He also has 3 sexual relationships going on, with girls as dissimilar as many of Manhattan’s neighborhoods are.
This is a non-linear musical. For me, it’s all going on in Bobby’s mind. He struggles with being a 3rd wheel in the relationships he has with the couples. He comes to terms with his own fears of commitment and marriage.
His 35th birthday party takes place at repeated junctures, and finally leads to a conclusion he comes to.
Furth’s original script is not very dated, and the Twelfth Night production wisely veers from the revisions in later productions which include an unnecessary and unwarranted suggestion that Bobby is actually bi-sexual and has a pass made at him by one of the husbands. Furth wrote a wry, dry comedy of metropolitan life in the last third of the 20th century, and Sondheim’s score takes it to a higher plane with indelible comedy songs and bracing ballads that have become an essential part of the Broadway musical landscape.
As Bobby, Harry Turpin is easily enough of a triple threat entertainer to tackle the monumental leading role. He brings tremendous passion and gusto to the performance, though he seems to have been directed by Buckley to stress Bobby’s angst over his affability. Turpin has a furrowed brow and a look of disdain on his face far too early and too often, reappearing throughout. An arc to his performance would have shown his talents better. He still has the powerful voice, quirky personality, and dance skills far beyond what the role requires to make a solid impression.
Those dance skills are on ample display in Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You, the top of Act 2 rouser with all the married friends. Turpin plays Bobby’s realization that he has no dance partner of his own with comic dexterity. He socks Marry Me A Little with raw intensity, where such intensity is warranted. His scene leading into the great comic duet Barcelona is played at just the right pitch, with Maggie Pederson as ditzy blonde “flight attendant” April playing the perfect foil. The duet is played just right.
As Amy, the girl Bobby wishes would Marry Me A Little, Liza Delia is most definitely a keeper. This recent Cornish College grad does one of the two or three best renditions of the lyrically complex, rapid-fire comic showstopper Not Getting Married I have heard. She’s in a class with the likes of Madeline Kahn, and the original Broadway Amy, Beth Howland. She etches the comic desperation of becoming a newlywed with finesse.
Elliot Kraber is charming as her ever-patient groom to be Paul, even though he reads visually more like a young man going to his Bar Mitzvah.
Laura Pershern and Atticus Koontz, as the high-strung pair Harry and Sarah who get into a karate match, are both funny and solidly matched as a couple.
Rebecca Maiten’s Susan starts strong then wears out her welcome with an overload of Southern belle flutteriness, while her stage spouse Peter, played by Daniel Cords, is rather engagingly eccentric in his role.
Kyla Roberts and Lars Jorgensen hit comedic highs in their roles as David and Jenny in the sharply written pot-smoking scene with Turpin.
As April, Marta, and Kathy respectively, Maggie Pederson, Jenna Jordan, and Jessica Vit Anderson do well by the Andrews Sister style You Could Drive A Person Crazy in which the three gals in Bobby’s life compile his neuroses. Pederson makes April, the airline stewardess, a lovable, if dim, sweetheart. Jordan brings vibrancy, if not quite a big enough voice to Another Hundred People, and mugs a bit too much as the wild-child Marta. Anderson is solid on her too short scene with Bobby as Kathy announces she’s leaving the big city, but the production cuts her Tick-Tock dance number, designed in the original to showcase for Donna McKechnie, choreographer Michael Bennett’s muse. With no solo song, the role of Kathy becomes the most extraneous.
Finally, as Joanne, a role totally hand-crafted for the late-great Elaine Stritch, Renee Robison is mostly at sea, with an unsure sense of pitch dogging her deliveries of The Little Things You Do Together and The Ladies Who Lunch, and not enough zing as her character delivers the show’s zingiest one-liners. Her real life spouse, Edward Robison, has little to do as her doormat of a husband, Larry.
The cast gets solid musical support from musical director Gregory Smith and a lively band. Brandon Scalf’s one-set scenic design is basically just a blank canvass with some furniture thrown in, as it must suggest multiple different locales. Costume design by Susanne Gamber could have done with some 70’s period flourishes. And, as of opening Sam Forck’s sound design was under attack by gremlins once too often.
This Company isn’t a standard-bearer for the show, but I felt it ended up in the plus column.
Company continues its run at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, (4408 Delridge Way SW), February 19 and 20 at 7:30 pm, and February 21 at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. You can purchase tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door up to an hour before show-time.
Merman’s Apprentice is a cast recording of a musical that has yet to see a full-blown staging. Featuring a company of mega-talented performers that did the show in concert at Birdland supper club in NYC a few months back, this recording of the Stephen Cole (Book and Lyrics) and David Evans (Music) musical fable (seen to great effect locally at Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musical a few years back) should be enough to convince a Broadway or Off-Broadway producer to take it to the next level.
Cole and Evans are writing here in a golden age of Broadway style as befits a tale involving the unforgettable Ethel Merman, who worked with all the greats from Irving Berlin to Cole Porter to Jule Styne and yes, his then still new to Broadway Stephen Sondheim, in the pair’s musical fable Gypsy.
It helps the conceit of the show that playwright Cole actually was pals with “The Merm” in her later years. In this show you get the expected brass and sass and occasional swearing you’d expect from her public image, but also a genuine glimpse into her often painful off-stage life. Still, the ingenious story the show tells is largely imaginary.
In the late 60’s, a pre-teen show-biz hopeful Muriel Plakenstein runs away from her home in Canarsie/Brooklyn and meets up with Ethel, who is in rehearsal to be the last Broadway legend to star in Hello, Dolly! before it closes as Broadway’s longest-running musical ever, up to then. Dolly’s legendary producer, David Merrick (known as the Abominable Showman) has meanwhile mulled (fictionally) recasting an all child cast to keep Dolly running. Ethel and Muriel having become fast friends, and the Merm suggests Merrick give the kid a chance. Muriel meets not only all of Ethel’s coterie of associates, but also Mom and Pop Zimmerman, Ethel’s aged folks, whom she cares for. Muriel reminds Ethel of her late daughter, Ethel Junior aka “Little Bit”, who had taken her own life. Muriel, weary of rehearsal hell misses her widowed Father. But suffice to say that the curtain comes down on a happy ending. It’s a fable, after all.
Actress-Singer Klea Blackhurst proved long ago she was a foremost Ethel impersonator, so she is the ideal casting for the role of Ethel. She belts out the on-the-nose pastiche numbers with all the vibrato and brass on the album, including Listen to the Trumpet Call and Now You’re Gonna Sing, with dead-on accuracy. Where she really kills is in her ballads. The heart-tugging Little Bit, and the inspirational Taking the Veil, show us the star’s softer side, vocally and emotionally. They are also the standout songs in a wholly enjoyable score.
Young Elizabeth Teeter holds her own with Blackhurst and then some, on songs like All About Ethel and the duet Pals. She has her own poignant moment on I Miss Canarsie, and her opening night on Broadway number I Really Like It, which neatly spoofs the Dolly title tune and staging.
Veteran Broadway players Anita Gillette and P.J. Benjamin shine as Mom and Pop, as they sing about how their baby girl was always Loud. Bill Nolte nearly resurrects Merrick from the grave in his numbers, and solid support in key character roles come from Brian Rooney and Eddie Korbich.
The CD comes with great liner notes by Cole and theatre writer extraordinaire Peter Filichia. Lynne Shankel’s musical arrangements are superb, and played to a fare thee well by Musical Director Larry Yurman and his band. The sound on the CD is crisp and clear, assuring you get every one of Cole’s witty and wonderful lyrics. Hamilton may hip-hop its way through modern-day Broadway deservedly, but Broadway deserves a bit of old-fashioned charm, chuckles, and star charisma too.
Let’s hope there is a Broadway cast album in the wings for Merman’s Apprentice as well. You can purchase the CD online at Amazon.