“You say ‘yes,’ I say ‘no’. /You say ’stop,’ and I say, ‘go, go, go!’” sang The Beatles in 1967. Steven Sondheim’s award-winning musical comedy Company, hitting the stage in 1970, explores that familiar dynamic within love and marriage.
In 1970, ideas about sex, love and marriage were in flux. No more tow-towing to the 1950’s ideal of family that came into every American living room with “Father Knows Best.” How boring! The women’s movement demanded equality, including within marriage; sex before marriage and multiple partners were no longer taboo (and the AIDS epidemic had not yet arrived), the Stonewall Rebellion had just happened. Young people exploded cultural barriers with reckless abandon.
New York City, the setting of Company, was the perfect place to try out new ways of living and new people to live with:where every minute “another hundred people just got off the train.” It’s a place where a white guy like Bobby, the main character, can have several relationships at the same time with people as different as an airline stewardess, a homesick country girl, and a be-bopping woman of color – without having to account to any of them. New York provides an anonymity that allows the greatest individual freedom. The breaking of norms also brought in new contradictions in relationships, and the young people in the show, both married and unmarried, are navigating yet uncharted waters.
Stage Director Beth Dunnington brought us back to the 70’s, with the projected NY skyline shifting behind the stage, the retro-costumed players in headbands and polyester (the karate-kicking couple), the pot-smoking and the disco dancing; the largely wind, horn, and percussive orchestra conjuring those wild times.
But paradoxically, in the 70’s, people were still looking to get married before they were 30. We meet Bobby at his 35th surprise birthday party, thrown by five married couples who are his best friends. They all gang up on him to join their ranks out of concern that he’s missing out. He is thinking too that it might be time to find a permanent partner, but isn’t sure just what he’s missing out from. As he spends time with each couple, he finds that they are just as confused as he is! Each vignette with Bobby and one of the couples exposes more and more “you say yes and I say no” contradictions, sometimes touching, usually hilarious: the hilarity comes from our self-recognition. Bobby asks one husband point-blank – after witnessing David hinting to his wife that he wants more freedom and she ignoring the hints – if he is sorry he got married: one of the best songs of the evening ensues, as David responds that you’re both sorry and grateful, “scared that she’ll drift away, and scared that she’ll stay!”
In this ensemble cast, the women have bigger roles, perhaps because Bobby is more interested in them than in the men. Chloe Hayes as Amy was a show-stopper in “Getting Married Today,” a lightning fast song mostly in patter which she delivered with remarkable clarity of diction, all the while giving us a laugh-out-loud simulation of a panic attack right before her wedding: “No I’m not getting married today!” Young Rhealee Fernandez convinced us that she was a drunk, older and thrice-married woman who belittles conventional housewives. Her sultry alto gave an ironic interpretation to “Ladies who Lunch,” which ends with an unexpectedly rousing exhortation to “rise, rise, rise!” Bobby has three women he’s …wooing?? Sara Law as the sincerely dumb stewardess April had impeccable timing with her enthusiastically inane conversation, and the post-love-making back-and forth duet with Bobby, another “yes-no-yes-no” situation, was a delight. During their time under the bed covers, Katie McCollum danced out both ecstasy and uncertainty in front of the bed, a lovely change of pace. Kiana Beverly gave us a hyper-positive Marta who revels in her life in New York; she sang “another hundred people” with innocent exuberance.
The center of all the (in)action, Bobby, as played by Justin John Moniz, is almost like the eye of a hurricane: he mostly watches as his friends interact with each other, and even with his girlfriends he seems bemused and detached. On the one hand, his being laid back made it hard to see why all his friends found him so irresistibly charming; on the other, it gave plenty of room for the rest of the players to shine. It is at the end that Bobby/Justin finally comes into his own, stepping forward at first tentatively – almost tearfully conveying the anguish that comes with finally understanding that what he is missing is a depth of feeling, whether that be joy or pain. Then Justin’s expansive tenor rises to certainty: “Being Alive” is connection to someone else. Justin’s forte is rising to forte with passionate conviction.
Half a century later (can that be?), Company is still fresh, and as the final production in this year’s festival, it was an upbeat way to end. We’re “sorry/grateful:” sorry that the season is over, and grateful that HPAF will be back next summer. Onward to 2020!
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby