First comes the rhythm. In Stowe Theatre Guild's engaging production of Company, Stephen Sondheim's irresistible beats draw the audience in from the opening number's snap, crackle and pop. Then the musical's haunting harmonies, nicely executed by a cast with abundant singing talent, command attention. Finally, the comedy surges in, mocking marriage while pointing out that it's still a pretty good alternative to living alone.
Sondheim's Company was a distinctive musical when it was written in 1970. Instead of presenting a narrative, the show concentrates on character as revealed in nonlinear vignettes. Instead of an outside obstacle to romance, our hero must overcome his own unwillingness to commit to a relationship.
The musical was also distinguished by its innovative use of what were then adventurous expressions of the late '60s sexual revolution: trying pot, checking out a disco, learning martial arts, sleeping with a ditzy stewardess. The good news is, Sondheim's lyrics and the musical's book, by George Furth, are witty enough to withstand the test of time, even without any shock value.
Company received a record number of Tony nominations and won six awards, including best musical, book, lyrics, music and direction. The music is terrifically catchy, not least because Sondheim is masterful at fusing melody, rhyme and meaning into a single satisfying effect. His music gives his lyrics the emphasis of speech; you cannot miss the meaning of the rise and fall of notes in "So whadda you wanna get married for?"
The show tries to answer that very question. Anchored by bachelor Robert's 35th birthday party, the musical is a string of 11 scenes, each depicting relationships with Robert as participant or observer. A married couple bicker, yet seem to have some stronger glue holding them together. A couple whose marriage Robert admires announce plans for their divorce. A husband wonders, to his wife and Robert, if he'd rather still be single. Mixed in with these looks at married life are Robert's own dates, which reveal the price of sexual freedom to be small talk with ill-suited companions.
A showstopping number features a bride-to-be who gloriously melts down, convinced she can't go through with the wedding. Sondheim launches it with a hymnlike ode to marriage, sung by a disembodied choral soloist. The slow, liturgical tempo and innocuous lyrics about love's sweetness segue into the groom's heroic statement about his love, sung at a slightly brisker pace with charming zeal.
Then the percussion and piano begin tapping out a furious rhythm, and the bride embarks on a tightly wound address to the wedding guests. The crisp, funny rhymes beat out a tattoo of her regrets, all in unremitting meter: "Perhaps I'll collapse in the apse right in front of you." Sondheim weaves the groom and the choral soloist around the madcap cadence the bride establishes. The combination of his discrete melodies, surprising harmonies and contrasting tempos makes the piece a tour de force. At last Friday's performance, the audience didn't stop laughing.
Abbie Tykocki directed the show with balanced attention to acting and musical performance. The entire cast has fine singing skills, but it also proves capable of comedy. The characters are only lightly sketched in this cavalcade, but Tykocki and the actors seize sharp details to make each glow with the brightness, and brevity, of a firefly. The polished production earns plentiful laughs for its nice comic timing and focused character interaction.
The playing space itself imposes some limitations, however. With five couples, three girlfriends and a leading man, the action doesn't have much room on Stowe's Town Hall Theatre stage. Tykocki stations the five couples on platforms upstage and down, seated when not directly involved in a scene. Having them onstage at all times makes the anthology quality of the show visible, but movement is limited. Many scenes play in cramped spaces, and characters often face front instead of looking at each other.
For the full-cast numbers, Tykocki and choreographer Nicola Boutin get everyone in motion, though the stage confines the action to simple lines. Still, for the Act II opener "Side by Side by Side," Boutin incorporates campy vaudeville in a high-energy number. And the finale uses strong but uncomplicated dance elements to underscore the soaring power of Robert's revelation, "Being Alive."
Assembling a cast of 14 with this much singing talent is an impressive feat in community theater. The vocalists are good at producing Sondheim's jazz-inflected harmonies and hold nothing back in a thoroughly captivating live performance.
Nathan Tykocki, the director's husband, portrays Robert with simple sincerity. Everybody loves Robert, and the actor gives him an aw-shucks warmth. He shines throughout, and hits his peak in the anthemic closing number.
Kelly Kendall and Scott Weigand have a nice rapport, hilariously tested in their living-room karate combat. Gillian Wildfire and Matt Bacewicz are just as amiable pre- and postdivorce. Holly Biracree and Owen Brady show the disparate pleasures, giddy and heavy, of getting stoned.
Jennifer Warwick belts out "The Ladies Who Lunch" with vodka-soaked venom, while Stephen Kendall refuses to act his age as a dancer. Sabrina Sydnor as the reluctant bride captures her number's endless lyrical details while punching out the character's pure panic, ably accompanied by Jayden Choquette as the groom.
Sami Schwaeber, Stacy Garrison and Gabrielle Mailloux, as the girlfriends both fed up and intrigued by Robert, romp through their complaints in a silly number. Schwaeber's duet with Robert, "Barcelona," is splendidly funny, a pithy statement of romantic indecision.
Musical director Martin Hain's pit band is stripped down to keyboard, bass and percussion. The instrumentation is sufficient to convey Sondheim's rich and challenging music, but the band is forced to play at a low volume to keep the vocals firmly on top. Hain elicits fine vocal performances while emphasizing the percussive excitement of Sondheim's music.
The score is widely considered one of Sondheim's best, and every tune offers a sonic surprise or two while powerfully conveying mood and wit. It's a pleasure just to be caught up in the energizing pace of the music. Frankly, it doesn't matter whether Robert gets married or not; it's just great fun to listen to everyone sing about love and marriage.
Company, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, directed by Abbie Tykocki, produced by Stowe Theatre Guild. Thursday through Saturday, June 25 to 27, 8 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, July 1 to 3, 8 p.m.; plus 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 27, at Stowe Town Hall Theatre. $15-25.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Good Company"