Company: in the wrong room

Rancity Theatre is presenting Stephen Sondheim's Company.

It’s not easy being young and handsome and getting all the sex you want — at least so I’ve been told. (Jonathan Winsby in Company)

The venue doesn’t work. The style doesn’t work. And the wig they’ve given Katey Wright is horrible. But it’s not all bad news.

Raincity Theatre, which scored a smashing success with is site-specific production of Sweeney Todd last season is back with a site-specific production of Company. (The music and lyrics for both properties are by Stephen Sondheim.)

Sweeney Todd is operatic and it was thrilling to have it unfold almost on top of you in a shoebox of a storefront in Gastown: when the singers let loose with their great big voices, your whole body vibrated.

With Company, the venue is an L-shaped storefront in Mt. Pleasant and the L is the first problem: it means that you can only hear the singers clearly when they’re more or less facing you. Sometimes they’re literally around a corner and their voices virtually disappear.

Company is about a bachelor named Bobby whose married friends are throwing a surprise party for him on the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday. They love him, and they want him to find a wife, but Bobby is ambivalent. After this set-up, the musical consists of nonlinear songs and scenes: Bobby visits his friends and observes their marriages; Bobby also negotiates romance and sex with a series of women. The musical is about the fear of commitment and the desire for company.

The style of the piece is presentational, a celebration of virtuosic performance. “Getting Married Today”, the patter song to end all patter songs, is designed to be sung more quickly than most people can think. And Bobby’s older friend Joanne sings “The Ladies Who Lunch”, an anthem of bitterness that should bring the house down.

Company is a show-off of a musical and, considering how dazzling Sondheim’s music and lyrics are, it has every right to be.

Unfortunately, in this production, director Chris Adams has set a more or less naturalistic style that doesn’t suit the material.

In the heel of the L, set designer Nicol Spinola has created a living-room that serves as home for all of the characters. But that living-room also traps this production in a naturalistic domestic space that’s too pedestrian for the more frenetic and urban numbers including “Another Hundred People”, which is about the tides of humanity that flood New York City. And the living-room stunts other showy bits, including “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, an Andrews-Sisters homage that three of Bobby’s girlfriends sing. That song screams for sassy choreography and Spinola, who has also choreographed this show, manages to get in some fancy footwork while the singers are sitting on the couch, but it’s not enough. Almost all of Spinola’s choreography for this Company consists of variations on the theme of wandering around the house.

The laxness that pervades this production also emanates from Jonathan Winsby’s performance as Bobby. Winsby’s Bobby is soft and unmodulated when he needs to be charismatic and kind of tortured. Although he seemed to be struggling with some kind of vocal impediment on opening might — maybe a cold? — Winsby can sing and, on opening night, he nailed Bobby’s final number, “Being Alive”, but we had to wait a long time for that kind of attack.

Instructively, the most successful characterizations are also the most eccentric. I loved Lindsay Warnock’s take on April, the bimbo flight attendant, for instance: Warnock makes April into a kind of squeaky toy. And I enjoyed the wild-eyed intensity and verbal dexterity that Alex Gulasson brings to Amy, the reluctant bride who speed sings “I’m Not Getting Married”.

But, under Adams’s direction, the balance of eccentric and naturalistic characterizations doesn’t work. Playing a dieting foodie named Sarah, for instance, Caitlin Clugston gets hung out to dry because she’s going (very forcefully) for camp and the guys playing the scene with her aren’t.

I don’t want to lean too heavily into the negative because there’s lots to enjoy — mostly the score. Musical director Arielle Ballance leads a tight and tasteful onstage four-piece orchestra. And, when Sondheim’s harmonies come flowing over you, there’s no resisting them.

There are other pleasures too, including Warren Kimmel’s subtle performance as Joanne’s weary but loving third husband Larry.

Still, I do want to mention a couple of distracting design decisions. The wig that they’ve put on Katey Wright’s Joanne looks like they found it on the floor of a bar. And costumer Chis Sinosich has wrapped Joanne in a godawful brown outfit that looks like an unholy mashup of a taco and chocolate milk. Other costume items, including a couple of crocheted vests, are far more successful.

A huge amount of talent and work has been poured into this production of Company, but a good deal of it has spilled.

COMPANY Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Directed by Chris Adams. Presented by Raincity Theatre at 2531 Ontario Street on Saturday, October 12. Continues until October 26. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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