Composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim died last year, but his musicals continue to fascinate. “Company,” originally produced in 1970 and updated 20 years later by Sondheim and book writer George Furth, captivates due to the unusual structures of both its circular narrative and musical harmonies—all to convey the truth about marriage.
The Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) has ambitiously taken on this production, bringing to life its New York-based story and Sondheim’s challenging music and lyrics. A brave 14-member cast—directed by LBPH Artistic Director Sean Gray and accompanied by an accomplished orchestra led by Stephen Olear—does its best with the staging and vocal complexities, immersing the audience in a complicated view of marriage reflected in the harmonic dissonance of its songs.
Though “Company” centers on Robert (Cris Cortez), a bachelor marking his 35th birthday, it involves his five heterosexual married-couple friends just as much. They want their dear Robert to be married, like them. They invite him to dinners at their respective homes (a “third wheel,” they admittedly sing), during which he sees them perform karate on each other, talk casually about divorce, and get high with him—but only to appease a partner.
Despite the relationship dynamics he witnesses, Robert says he is ready to commit and we see he has three current female options from whom to choose. But does he really want to? And do any of the prospective women? Marriage today is perhaps even less of an institution than it was when it had already begun crumbling by 1970. The couples in “Company” express honest ambivalence, singing, “You're always sorry, you're always grateful” to be married in the song “Sorry-Grateful.”
Why Robert feels he has to cave to their seemingly constant pressure to marry someone is perhaps best analogized by television’s Friends—if Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Rachael and Ross all got married to other people and really want Joey to get married, too.
But though Robert says he’s willing, he hedges his bets, wanting someone to “Marry Me a Little,” as he sings at the end of the first act. “Company” refers to how marriage allows companionship, a salve to the existential fear in “Being Alive,” Robert’s second-act song about needing a partner who forces him to care while putting him “through hell.”
The music of “Company” also reflects that ambivalence through its intriguing dissonant harmonies, which the cast handles well and is one of the pleasures of this production. In one such song, “Poor Baby,” the couples lament Robert’s singlehood even as he is happily in bed with airline stewardess April (Sasha Badia). Robert’s harmonic duet with April in “Barcelona” is also pleasurable and allows Badia more of a presence than she otherwise has with her somewhat “dumb” character.
The cast also handles individual numbers well, though perhaps less consistently. Mabel Schreffler in a wedding dress as Amy masterfully carries off the rapid-fire lyrics of “Getting Married Today”—about how she is definitely not getting married today—though articulation is sometimes sacrificed for speed. And Carole Louise as free-spirited Marta hits every note of the thought-provoking “Another Hundred People,” though her voice could project more strongly. But Megan Cherry as the elegant and slightly older Joanne handles the sardonic “The Ladies Who Lunch” with relative aplomb.
All the songs are enjoyably complex and perhaps difficult to execute, yet the cast is game. They also handle well dance and fight choreography (by Sonya L. Randall and Matt Franta, respectively), though at times a bit stiffly. Cortez as Robert, though, is well cast and fluid in his pivotal role, with a warm voice, as are the aforementioned Schreffler, Cherry and Louise. Also relaxed in their roles are Kelsey Weinstein (recently seen in LBPH’s “Avenue Q,” with Schreffler and Cortez) as uptight Jenny, Colleen McCandless as potential wife Kathy, and Adolfo Becerra and Daniel Berlin as husbands Peter and Harry.
Staging is sometimes complicated as well, necessitating cast members turn their backs to the audience at times, getting three women simultaneously and a bit awkwardly into and out of Robert’s bed, and stashing the six-member orchestra behind the stage. But the cast and crew’s delivery of Sondheim’s melodies and provocative lyrics in “Company”—its story like an alternate-universe Friends—is like a gift of an unusual music box whose haunting harmonies resonate long after the song ends.
“Company” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Aug. 6, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks are required.