Monday, May 2, 2011

S.S. Company

(Lydia Hall, left, as Jenny; Ursula Cataan as Amy; Connor O'Brien as Bobby; Tracee Patterson as Joanne; Abigail Alwein as Susan; and Megan Elk as Sarah in the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory production of "Company." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
Those with a predilection for kitsch might fondly recall Frank Wildhorn's rock revamp of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On screen, Robert Louis Stevenson's born-in-a-nightmare embodiment of schizophrenia has been most notably split between the talents of John Barrymore, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy. However, the undying parable's most visceral manifestation comes in a 1970 musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth known as "Company," now at Fairmount Center for the Arts. It would be nearly impossible in the annals of Broadway to find a work so conflicted between the numbing banality and ersatz hipness of its book and the melodic invention, salient wit and psychological insights of its score.

(Fredric March in the 1931 film version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.")
We speculate that this strange malady is due to the work's bizarre birth pangs. It is based on a series of vignettes about the vicissitudes of marriage. To draw together these pieces, the creators inserted a neurotic bachelor, Bobby. But ultimately the character, as written, was never more than a cipher who is not interesting enough to be the focal point of the show's disparate parts.

(Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman in the 1941film version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.")
But, oh, that score. With nods to boogie woogie and rollicking choruses to ballads of alienation and commitment phobia, Sondheim's cornucopia remains startling and fresh even after 41 years. Unless someday there's a rewritten version of the book, there will never be a "Company" you'd want to invite over for dinner.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Fred Sternfeld's Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory production is dizzyingly erratic, blowing hot and cold - a ship that docks triumphantly in spite of its many leaks. Indicative of the inconsistency is Connor O'Brien's blatantly insincere Bobby. Some may find his performance hollow, but others may relish his life-of-the-party obsequiousness as a justification for his emotional neediness. His original approach comes to fruition when he seems to be dancing to save his soul in "Side by Side by Side."

Among the evening's undisputed highlights is Ursula Cataan's felicitously frazzled Amy in wedding dress and boots victoriously conquering Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics in "Getting Married Today." Adding flash to "Another Hundred People," that love-hate ode to New York, is Natalie Green, ready to pack her bags and go on tour as Marta.

Where the production encounters rough sailing is the unexpected faltering of the usually wondrous Tracee Patterson. As Joanne, the musical's bitter fulcrum, Patterson is giving us one of the bleakest showstoppers in all of theater, "The Ladies Who Lunch," a dark reflection of rich, alienated Manhattan life. Sadly, she opts to play up the character's inebriation and winds up defanging the song's gut-wrenching impact.

Still, it is an unanticipated reward to find stellar Sondheim on the proverbial head of a pin in a civic center - get this - next to a Heinen's. It's a paradox worthy of our beloved Steve.

"Company" runs at Fairmount Center for the Arts through Saturday, May 14. For tickets, call 440-338-3171. 440-338-3171

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