SALT LAKE CITY — The musical Company started out as eleven one-act plays penned by actor/playwright George Furth who planned for Kim Stanley to play each of the separate leads. Anthony Perkins was interested in directing, and asked composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim to read the material. After Sondheim read the plays, he asked director/producer Harold Prince for his opinion. Prince thought the plays would make the basis for a musical; the theme would be, “New York marriages,” with a central character to examine those marriages. Thus, the groundbreaking Company was born.
Company was among the first musicals to deal with adult themes and relationships. As Sondheim puts it, “Broadway theater had been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really wanted to escape that world when they went to the theatre, and then here we were with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” The 1970 original production was nominated for a record-setting fourteen Tony Awards and won six.
Originally titled Threes, the show’s plot revolves around Bobby (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, let alone a marriage), the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Unlike most book-adapted musicals that follow a clearly delineated plot, Company is a concept musical composed of short vignettes presented in no particular chronological order and linked by a celebration for Bobby’s 35th birthday.
Company is deceptively simple, or better put, obviously complex, so I must commend the University of Utah Department of Theatre for tackling this wonderful and classic musical that offers a glimpse of life and marriage in the big city. The University production as a whole is good but uneven, with an exuberant and talented cast led by Derek DuBay as Bobby. DuBay is an amiable actor, engaging to watch, and, for the most part, he carries the production well. He has a pleasant voice that lands on his tenor notes well, but he struggles with notes in his lower register.
The cast is young—capable, but young. Sondheim’s score isn’t easy to sing, none of his scores are easy to sing, but Company’s score is a little out of the reach of these young voices who had trouble sustaining though Sondheim’s phrasing. In the opening number, “Company,” there is a super famous phrase that has the ensemble of actors holding out a note for twelve bars. Twelve! That’s forty-eight counts! It’s brilliant songwriting, but seriously difficult to sing and, though these young actors did their best, they just couldn’t handle it. Now, no one expects one person to hold a note for 48 counts, but better musical direction could have helped the actors sustain and breathe so that the musical effect could have been realized. But what they lacked in this sort of skill and ability—which will come with time, experience, and maturity—they made up for in affability and charming with the book scenes.
Shout outs must go to many of the cast members including Caitlin Rae Campbell who is a delight as Amy. Campbell gives just enough neuroticism and loads of comic charm in, “Not Getting Married Today,” as well as in her scenes with Patrick Ryan Castle as the good-natured Paul. Campbell is a strong actress with a commanding presence and is a joy to watch. Sheradin Jansen who played the “slightly square” (do we even use that word today?) Jenny is endearing. Jenny’s getting “stoned” scene is great fun and her laugh is genuine and funny. Jansen has one of the stronger voices of the cast and sang the opening of, “Not Getting Married,” quite well. Maddy Timm who plays April, the “dumb” stewardess (I believe we called them “stews” back then), has wonderful comic timing. Timm’s scene with DuBay leading up to the song, “Barcelona,” is a highlight of the show. I must also mention DuBay’s performance in, “Being Alive.” The performance is simple, effective, and moving.
The live music, directed by Alex Marshall, is wonderful, especially in this era of big, ear-splitting, canned music, and I thank the Department of Theatre for giving that gift to the audience. The set design by Kyle Becker is modern, functional and very workable. I like the coordinating lights under the levels which coincided with each couple’s identified color.
The staging by Ryan Emmons is effective and works well, but there are problems with some technical and artistic choices in the show. The costumes by Chloe Mason seem randomly thrown together. Mason’s idea of dressing each couple in matching color schemes is great, but the execution of those costumes read haphazardly. Several costumes fit the actors well while several are ill-fitting and unkempt: Mary Nikols as Sarah wears a man’s shirt backwards and it makes no sense at all. Nikols is a good actress, but I was so distracted trying to figure out what she was wearing that it took away from her winning performance. Because most of the costumes are either too tight or too lose, the production looks sloppy. In addition, Company deals with issues that were relevant to American life and culture in 1970, but the U of U production tried to update the show to 2019. A scene where Bobby, Jenny, and David (DuBay, Jansen, and Skyler Smith) clandestinely smoke pot was “far out” in 1970 but now it’s common place and unexceptional. Referrals to the Kamasutra, busy signals, and women wearing hats, clash onstage with cell phones and voice mail, which made for a jolting evening of theater.
Company deals with a sort of sophisticated cynicism that was coming into vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a cynicism that seems dated and almost quaint now. However, what isn’t dated or quaint is what Company is really about: the need for companionship in life. As Bobby sings in, “Being Alive,” one of the greatest ballads ever written, we want somebody “to hold me too close.” We want “Somebody, [to] hurt me too deep.” We want to be alive, and maybe we can only truly be alive with company. Being alive is what Company is all about. Even though this production may be a little rough, it’s still worth seeing.