You’re in good ‘Company’ at Bucks County Playhouse

JUSTIN GUARINI & Company CastBy John Dwyer and Herb Millman

In Stephen Sondheim’s Company, there is a song that starts with the lyrics, “Where you going?” and the response is “Barcelona.”

For anyone reading this review, the answer to the question “where you going?” should be “to the box office of the Bucks County Playhouse” to see the finest production of Company that we have ever seen. We really want to push this. We would shout it from the highest point in New Hope — Bowman’s Tower — if it would get your attention, and move you to buy a ticket.

Hell, let’s shout it from the Empire State Building so Broadway can hear! This production is the best, bar none, of Company that you will see, and you better get a ticket quick, as they should be selling out.

Are you still reading? You should be calling the box office right now! We will pause while you do so. (Dear Editor: Can you put in in three lines of space so the reader can get to the phone to dial (215) 862-2121 or go to www.bcptheater.org and get a ticket before finishing this review — we don’t want to be blamed if the show sells out).

Now, let’s discuss what has made this show so exceptional. Last time we saw it, the version starred Raul Esparza on Broadway. The direction was by John Doyle who gave us Wall Street costuming and Upper East Side chill. It worked in a way, but the comedy that should be found in the George Furth script was eviscerated. Now, how can a show that was put together, as told to us by one of the producers in a curtain speech, within two weeks be as good as a Broadway show, where more money is thrown at it and the rehearsal period is four to six weeks? It is due to the updated script from the London Donmar production, brilliant directing and casting of Hunter Foster, and magnificent choreography of Lorin Latarro.

The show was originally to be a series of one act plays by George Furth, starring Kim Stanley in multiple roles and directed by Anthony Perkins. But when Stephen Sondheim read the scripts about the complexities of marriage and relationships, he thought it could be a vehicle for a musical.  Granted. they were one-acts with different characters, and what was devised to bring all the stories together was the unmarried character of Bobby, who became the protagonist. Our journey is with him as he evaluates the single, uncommitted life to that of marriage and a committed relationship.

A fault of the script, which has become more evident in other productions, is that it starts out with examining different couples’ situations first before establishing a relationship between the protagonist Bobby and the audience. But Justin Guarini is such perfect casting for Bobby that this issue, though it still exists, is overcome by Justin’s boyish charm which is of course, Bobby’s calling card. Bobby is the man who won’t grow up but wants to.  He is so much lost boy and so much player and needs to establish himself with charisma, as his character is not given enough beginning dialogue for the script to establish that connection.

Mr. Guarini has the requisite portions of cute, lost and searching that the role requires. There has never been a better sung rendition of Someone is Waiting or a better acted version of Being Alive. He has done better than anyone we have seen so far in filling in the spaces of the enigmatic character of Bobby when we join him as he navigates between the independence of one and the mutual dependence of two.

This is another triumph for director Hunter Foster and choreographer Lorin Latarro. They worked together before this year on National Pastime. In the original New York Times review of Company from April 27, 1970, Clive Barnes, who did not seem to be a fan of the show, said at the end of the review, “I really believe a lot of people are going to love it. Don’t let me put you off. Between ourselves, I had reservations about West Side Story.”

The show at that time was directed by Harold Prince, and his issues have been solved by Foster and his brilliant cast. Barnes carped the following in his review: “The conception has two difficulties. In the first place these people are just the kind of people you expend hours each day trying to escape from…

“Go to a cocktail party before the show, and when you get to the theater you can have masochistic fun in meeting all the lovely, beautiful people you had spent the previous two hours avoiding. You might enjoy it. At least this lot goes away with the curtain, and doesn’t know your telephone number.

“The second fault is a structural one. Here is a series of linked scenes, all basically similar to one another, and it is left to the director to find a variety of pace and character, and to impose a satisfactory unity on the show. This, Mr. Prince has not done. It may not be his fault. The odds were against him.”

Not too shabby to best Harold Prince, but that is what has happened. Foster and Latarro have done it! The comedy in each scene is milked for all it is worth, but the humanity in all the characters is retained, and each couple, in spite of any banter, are in love with each other. And that is apparent. That this has not been apparent in previous productions has been faulted on the script, but good actors and good directors know how to find the soul in the work, and that is what happened here. The pacing is perfection and as to unity in the show, it was always there but Barnes was too blind to see it. Kudos to Foster and Latarro.

The delicious casting includes the towering John Bolton as Harry and the diminutive Jennifer Cody as Sarah, the first couple we meet. Peter and Susan are cast as an interracial couple. This is not dictated in the script, but works well and makes the show contemporary. The characters at different points are seen using cellphones, which also has brought us to present day. This couple was played expertly by Max Kumanagai (seen previously in Ain’t Misbehavin’ last year at BCP) and Susannah Jones. Steven Rosen as David, and Laura Jordan as Jenny, could give an acting class on where comedy ends and pathos begins. They have one laughing, then feeling how much they deeply care for each other.

John Calinendo as Paul is getting married to the frantic Amy, played by Kate Wetherhead. Another wonderful scene fully realized.   Kate and John’s acting skills are on par with Kate’s technical skills, which are astounding as seen and heard in the patter song Getting Married Today. The final couple to meet is the over-the-top, showy and loud Joanne, and her devoted husband Larry, played respectively by Candy Buckley and John Augustine. The role of Joanne in Company is one so identified with Elaine Stritch that it is difficult for others to play without being in her shadow, but it is not impossible. Buckley as a wealthy, vitriolic, two-fisted drinker knows how to land a caustic remark, and also how to pull back to show need and vulnerability. John Augustine is equally adept in being the quieter stalwart for her to lean on. They are excellent. Each actor among the couples got it right and were brilliant in creating the question of “Is marriage worth it?” in Bobby’s mind.

Bobby also has three possible love interests: Marta, Kathy, and April, played respectively by Chelsea Emma Franko, Gabrielle Ruiz and Anne Horak. They are also respectively quirky, dependable and hot.  Or socially fun and unpredictable, wife material or bed material. Oh, too many choices. But choices are Bobby, baby’s dilemma.

The show has a great score that also includes Buckley’s show-stopping Ladies Who Lunch, the paean to New York Another Hundred People and the ensemble high-strutting Side by Side. The use of the turntable in Another Hundred People was lovely, and the choreography throughout was exceptional. Guarini’s fine dancing in Side by Side was unexpected and quite fun.

In the end, we obviously loved the show and highly recommend it. It is great ensemble acting with a remarkably wonderful 10-piece orchestra. A shout-out as well to scenic designer Jason Sherwood, whose minimalist suspended window frames created a maximalist New York City.

One of us felt there was a structural issue with Bobby not being given enough time to establish his character at the beginning, and the stage lighting was a bit too dark I could not fully see actors on the side during ensemble scenes. But because we saw the show on opening night, the hope is that the lighting issue will be adjusted — after all they did all of this in only two weeks.

But the other disagreed with that criticism, believing the structural problem was overcome by the director and actors, and should not be an issue, and also had no issue with the lighting.

We both agree that this is a magnificent production and must-see theater, especially if you love musicals and you love Stephen Sondheim. Better than Broadway, and represents the best production of Company you will likely ever see.

As an aside, the topic of who can be married is being decided by the Supreme Court this month. Company is an especially timely musical in that respect. Gay people currently can only say to their partners, “Marry Me a Little” (the Act I finale). There are 13 states that do not recognize gay marriage, including Michigan and Ohio. Come see Company and be a part of the conversation.

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