The Ringwald is in good ‘Company’
FERNDALE, Mich.–Happy Birthday, Ringwald Theatre. This week marks 11 years since the Ferndale theatre began offering its eclectic mixture of productions, which this year has included half a season of vintage Sondheim shows, including the current production.
Over several decades I’ve seen Sondheim shows everywhere: Major theaters, opera houses, in community theaters, on PBS and in movie palaces. But it’s been a delight to experience two of the master’s musicals in the tiny confines of the Ringwald. The first, last winter, was the rarely performed Merrily We Roll Along. The second and current show is a retelling of his breakthrough 1970 musical, Company.
Company was the first of an early ‘70s Sondheim trilogy which hit Broadway one after the other. (It was followed by “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”) Sondheim, who had started his career somewhat reluctantly as a lyricist only, had already written both words and music to other scores by the time he reached Company. But the trilogy is what launched him into the theatre god-o-sphere.
Company’s loose, vignette-like story, an impressionistic concept musical, was an early indication of the way Sondheim and collaborators would push the Broadway musical boundaries.
This production is mostly based on a mid-90s revision of the George Furth libretto, although it still takes place in a world where people have answering services and leisure suits. (One of the unique experiences of seeing a show in a very small theatre is being able to note such details as the female actors’ very 70s turquoise eye shadow.)
Fittingly for the Ringwald, the main character, Bobby, is also celebrating a milestone of sorts, his 35th birthday. He’s happy with his eternally single life, he says. Through the evening we meet a trio of his paramours, from a former serious ex-girlfriend to a new one-night stand. And we also meet several heterosexual married couples who have adopted “Bobby Baby” as their third wheel–the men half-envying him and in one case, slightly attracted to him, the women half-mothering him, and in at least one case, attracted to him.
Some of the criticisms leveled at the show over the years have included questions about Bobby’s true sexuality, and the fact he’s portrayed in the script as a bit of a cipher (and therefore hard for an actor to portray). But the latter seems to be the creators’ intent: Throughout the show, his friends and lovers refer to his inscrutability and his opaqueness. One of his friends, Sarah, points out that he always asks questions, as if to deflect from himself, while one of his girlfriends says she feels like she always has the next line in a conversation.
And there may come a point in the show where you do want to tell him, “Make up your mind!” (Even if you yourself are a notorious waffler.)
Richard Payton, as Bobby, brings an affable, vulnerable quality. He is both a good vocalist and excellent actor.
Among the fairly large cast of near equal-sized supporting characters, and almost equally talented performers, it almost seems unfair to single anyone out. Diane Hill and Tony Battle are amusing as Sarah and Harry, whose competitiveness might go a bit too far for our–and Bobby’s–taste.
Carrie Jay Sayer and Patrick T. Kilbourn are most convincing as a happily divorcing couple, a situation which does nothing to clarify Bobby’s confusion about matrimony.
Randi Hamilton and Adrian Alexander are Amy and Paul, a just-getting-hitched couple. Amy’s pre-wedding jitters are always one of the highlights of the score. “Getting Married Today,” sung at a bullet-train speed, is also one of several songs whose speed and/or lyrical intricacies is illustrative of the chops a performer needs to do Sondheim.
Jane MacFarlane and Alonzo Luzod are the slightly older Joanne and Larry, he blissfully tolerant of her many forays into Snarkdom. MacFarlane, with perhaps a bit of first-night, Amy-like jitters, had a brief glitch in her first song, the sardonic “The Little Things You Do Together.” She recovered, and later presented her own interpretation of one of the score’s most famous bits, the tart “Ladies Who Lunch.” (And good for her for the program shout-out to the role’s originator and Michigan native, the late, great Elaine Stritch.)
Diana Turner and John DeMerrell were fun as the very settled, “square” parents, Jenny and David, who hilariously experiment with a little of Bobbie’s pot. (In one of the more interesting moments that examine how couples think about each other, David later confides to Bobby that Jenny really just went along for his sake.)
Another great moment in the Sondheim score –and in this production–is the Andrews Sisters-style “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a sharp snap once again at Bobby’s standoffishness by three of his romantic encounters. (“So single and attentive and attractive a man … everything a person could wish, But turning off a person is the act of a man Who likes to pull the hooks out of fish.”)
The trio are played by Kryssy Becker as the slightly hippy-like / bohemian–whatever we were calling it in the 70s–Marta. Taylor Morrow is Kathy, the girl he almost married, who’s moved on. (In their scene, we see Bobby at his most fidgety, wishing to rejoin a party rather than spend quiet, reflective moments with a loved one.)
And Annie Kordas brings strength to a character often described as merely a dim bulb, Bobby’s flight attendant hookup, April. (Whom he the next morning refers to as June. You know, she’s one of those months.)
The wonderful actor/designer Vince Kelley has made a great directorial debut with this show, bringing out the emotion, wit and energy. And musical director Jeremy St. Martin has ably guided the cast through this difficult score.
So Happy Birthday to Company, now 48 years young, and still singing all those eternal questions about life, friendship and love.