Sondheim’s turning point musical comes to East Falls stage

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 4/27/23

Stephen Sondheim is frequently credited with introducing a tragicomic dimension into American musical theater with his Tony Award-winning "Company" in 1970.

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Sondheim’s turning point musical comes to East Falls stage


Stephen Sondheim is frequently credited with introducing a tragicomic dimension into American musical theater with his Tony Award-winning "Company" in 1970. Following the book by George Furth, it is the story of a troubled bachelor named Bobby whose friends pounce on him to demand that he marry.

In her production, the energy Annie Hnatko brings to the small Old Academy Players stage is amazing. She directs 14 actors to take advantage of the spirited movement of choreographers Sharon Gabriele-Slentz, Michele Gabriele-Anthony and Taylor Reynolds, and keeps pace with Sondheim's syncopated choral rhythms.

"Company" lacks a traditional plot. Bobby just has a series of encounters with his married, or soon-to-be-married friends. First, he visits Harry and Sarah in their home. Harry (Jordan Mann) is a recovering alcoholic while Sarah (Samantha Solar) is a "foodie." They live in flaky separate worlds, only coming together in a kinky karate bout.  

From the wings, Joanne (Theresa Swartz) observes their curious goings-on. She sings "The Little Things You Do Together," a cynical ditty that settles the show's quizzical take on marriage: "The hobbies you pursue together / Savings you accrue together / Looks you misconstrue together / That make marriage a joy."

Bobby's married male friends give scant guidance. Larry is happy to stay married to mercurial Joanne because he knows he cannot do any better. David is married to a "square." "Sorry-grateful" sums up their equivocal viewpoint. "You're sorry-grateful / Regretful-happy / Why look for answers / Where none occur / You'll always be what you always were / Which has nothing to do with, all to do with her. "

Therein lies the abiding irony of "Company." All of Bobby's friends have minimal, comically flawed relationships. Still, they cyclically team up in Greek chorus fashion and urge him to marry. The nonlinear story ends where it begins, on the occasion of Bobby's 35th birthday party, reprising the circularity of Becket's "Godot."

You also meet the three women Bobby dates. He almost married Kathy (Temma Schaechter) but could not bring himself to propose. He trysts with ditsy air stewardess April (Galadriel Sevener) in his apartment. But after he begs her not to fly off to Barcelona, he is appalled when she agrees to stay.

Then there is Marta (Liat Kovnater), so full of strange joy it scares him. Kovnater belts out an evocative version of "Another Hundred People '' exalting her love of New York's crazy energy. "Another hundred people just got off of the train...It's a city of strangers / Some come to work, some to play."

In "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" Bobby's women form a chorus to give their take on him: "Will any person ever get the juice of you? / You're crazy / You're a lovely person / You're a moving / Deeply maladjusted / Never to-be-trusted / Crazy person yourself /Bobby is my hobby and I'm givin' it up!"

The comedic flair of Hnatko's cast helps make the show a lot of fun. Lisa Sims is hilarious as Amy, the reluctant bride-to-be in "Getting Married Today." Theresa Swartz shines in the cabaret piece, "The Ladies Who Lunch," and Liat Kovnater is always full of radiant energy.

Josh Tull is reserved in his portrayal of Bobby, more nonplussed than distressed. He saves his most despairing moment for "Being Alive," his final song: "Someone to hold me too close / Someone to hurt me too deep / Someone to sit in my chair / To ruin my sleep / To make me aware of being alive / Being alive."

"Company" was a turning point for Sondheim. Previously, he was a lyricist for the hit musicals "West Side Story" (1957) and "Gypsy (1959). "Company" marked his complete transition to writing both lyrics and music. His melodic invention is minimal, as though he were concerned that the standalone hits of traditional musical theater detract from storytelling.

By keeping the melodic aspect spare, witty and playful lyrics stand out as Sondheim connects songs antiphonally with the chorus. "Company" was a turning point for American musical theater as well. It was a "thesis" musical concerned with a problem and the beginning of Sondheim's interest in tackling disturbing subjects which took Broadway theater in new directions.

Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. "Company" will run through May 7. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.