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'Company' That's Welcome

Theater review: Laguna Playhouse embraces the musical with warm performances, smart direction and minor Sondheim-Furth revisions.

September 28, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — It must be hard to keep a straight face when billing "Company" as a world premiere, but no matter. The Laguna Playhouse's revival of this breathtaking musical--yes, it's the newly authorized, final revised version--is proof that Stephen Sondheim and George Furth wrote a show not just for the 1970s but for the ages.

Many Sondheim devotees have always believed this. Many more Broadway fans, however, have needed to be convinced, given the mixed-to-respectful reception of the original and the profusion of diatribes that have since made the case for admiring it as a plotless, uninvolving concept piece with some brilliant songs and a complete zero for a hero.

The revelatory production that "Company" is getting here, admittedly against expectations, touched a deep nerve Thursday on opening night. As hugely entertaining and satirical as it is, this big, handsome, sophisticated show gives us with affecting loveliness the varieties of married life as it's lived, not as it's wished.

The most surprising aspect of the production has little to do with the slight script revisions--which are said to be a melding of the changes Sondheim and Furth made for separate revivals last year in New York and London--and a lot to do with the palpable warmth of the performances.

They suggest that while marital relationships may be overtaken by cynicism or disappointment, boredom or infidelity--all of which are laid out for our delectation by a biting score in wittily sketched New York scenes--the particular characters in this "Company" share an ambiguous but certain triumph over their quiet acts of desperation, compromise and (so easy to overlook) love.

As to the revisions: Bobby is about to celebrate his 35th birthday instead of his 38th; there's a reference to Prozac, de rigueur for the 1990s, and a minor bit of added comic dialogue clarifying the fact that Bobby isn't gay but rather the heterosexual bachelor Sondheim always said he was.

More significant than any of the changes is the reinsertion of "Marry Me a Little," which had been cut from the original (and put back into the 1995 revivals). This deft song of tentative assertion, which now closes the first act, allows us to trace the distance Bobby has come from his fear of commitment and his ambiguous sense of alienation to the intense plea of "Being Alive," the anthem of need that has always ended the second act.

Robert Yacko offers an anguished portrait of Bobby that illuminates his confusion, filling out an underwritten role by seeming to examine the defects in himself as well as the problems of the couples around him. It brings him into the story, answering the critics who have long claimed that Bobby was a cipher who's always looking in, an observer who never participates.

Yacko's performance--doubtless shaped in large degree by Jules Aaron's masterful direction--anchors a magnificent ensemble that cannot be praised too highly. Everyone will have their favorites. Mine were Patricia Scarborough's richly rounded Sarah, Damara Reilly's abrasively tough Joanne, Heidi Godt's perfect comic delivery of "Getting Married Today" and Jodi Harris' vivid Marta, especially when she puts over the show's most difficult signature tune, "Another Hundred People."

In fact, it's unfair to single out any of the cast. Individually and together, their full-bodied singing, energy and precision, as well as the heartfelt nuance in their light acting, make "Company" the most accomplished, most satisfying Laguna musical in a decade.

Oh, did we say that the coolly designed, multitiered set--so ably Manhattanized with historic black-and-white posters in shades of architectural gray--is also a knockout? Well, it is.

* "Company," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $26-$30. (714) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Company,"

Robert Yacko: Bobby

Heidi Godt: Amy

Damara Reilly: Joanne

Tom Shelton: Harry

P.M. Howard: Larry

Patricia Scarborough: Sarah

Christopher Shea: Paul

Jodi Harris: Marta

Betsy Gardner: April

Laura Wells: Susan

Diane Mountford: Jenny

Lili Lewis: Kathy

Jim Kocher: Peter

Rich Goldstein: David

A Laguna Playhouse production of a musical play by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book). Directed by Jules Aaron. Scenic design: Don Gruber. Lighting design: Paulie Jenkins. Costume design: W. Brad Elsberry. Choreography: Paul Leighton Nygro. Musical direction: Diane King Vann. Sound design: David Edwards. Stage manager: W. Brian Hugo.

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