Review by DENNIS KEMPTON
Bernadette Peters said, “Stephen Sondheim told me that Oscar Hammerstein believed everything that he wrote. So there’s great truth in the songs and that’s what was so wonderful to find.” Sondheim’s respect for Hammerstein’s truth-writing in his lyrics seems to mirror the famed composer’s own repertoire, as he has penned some of the most elegant scores and lyrics in the history of musicals. No less is true of his 1970 effort, Company.
Company was one of the first musicals to deal with adult themes and relationships. Written about upper-middle class couples and people, it was not lost on Sondheim that he was presenting, on stage, the problems that group have right in front of them, as they were the biggest supporters of theater, itself. Company opened on Broadway late April 1970 to much success, even though, during its initial “out-of-town tryouts” opening in Boston, Variety decided that the lyrics were “undistinguished.” The production went on to receive an astounding 14 Tony nominations, winning six, including Best Musical, Best Lyrics, and Best Original Score. It has been revived numerous times, including a stunningly stripped down 2006 production where the actors played their own instruments on stage.
With this laudable provenance, it’s intimidating to think of a community theater company putting on the show. For a black box theater, it could seem like trying to pour an entire magnum of champagne into a thimble without missing a drop. And that is exactly what Renegade Theater Company did with Sondheim’s musical about couples and relationships Thursday when it opened at Teatro Zuccone.
The story is about relationships: successful, but quirky–an excruciating balancing act between maintaining individuality and merging together; a longing for companionship while yearning for unbridled freedom. Bobby, the principal character, is turning 35 and he’s unmarried. Yet, the architecture of his life is built around five couples who take care of his needs to an extent. Unable or unwilling to commit to any woman, Bobby approaches his birthday in reflection of his relationships with the couples orbiting his world and with the young women he seems never to completely connect with, for whatever reasons he has.
In Renegade Theater Company’s production, Adam Sippola is cast in the lead role. Sippola is no stranger to the Sondheim experience, having played the title role in a very successful local production of the revival structure of Sweeney Todd directed by Sheryl Jensen a few years ago at the Play Ground. Sondheim’s not easy. His melodies and lyrics are an ebb and flow–a puzzle of emotion and notes that requires subtlety one moment and a steep climb to powerful peaks the next. Throughout, Sippola slides inside the lives of the five couples presented on stage with almost whispery familiarity and quietude. His characterization is not the single bon vivant crashing into nights of television watching and quibbling with his married friends. There is an abiding respect for their relationships and a genuine feeling, reflected from the stage, of connection with the fabric of their lives.
But, before all that…the opening of the show is strong. That’s the important thing. The harmonies are tight and feature some of the best vocalizing heard on local stages.
The casting of the couples is buoyed by having real-life couple Katy Helbacka and Andy Bennett lead off as Sarah and Harry. Their timing and knowledge of each other’s ability makes the top of the show pop with precision and verve. Both are wonderful comedic actors and sometimes just seeing Helbacka on stage getting ready to do something with a hint of mischief in her eyes is enough to make one lose it and start giggling. Add funnyman Bennett, who can demonstrate a significantly vulnerable soft side in his acting that is not only dramatically appealing, but a great foil for his wife, and the chemistry and acting become a highlight of the show, actually. The remaining couples are good even though the writing, in my view, doesn’t delve too deeply into their relationships (with the possible exception of Joanne and Larry, played by Carolyn LePine and Greg J. Anderson–but more on them later) to give you any reason to root for them or become endeared to them the way you do with Sarah and Harry. As Bobby flows in and out of their lives, we see the pushing and pulling dynamics of married life. There’s not much more to say about Sippola’s vocal power other than that is is, for lack of a better word: impressive. The timbre of his voice and his ability to get inside and curl around Sondheim’s difficult repertoire with ease and precision is the show’s valuable asset, enhanced, of course, by the talented ensemble that polishes the production to a gloss. Sippola’s crowning moment on stage comes in the first act with “Marry Me A Little”–a song that gets under the skin unexpectedly, driven home with the soaring finale Sippola belts from the stage to close the first act.
The actors do a commendable job of balancing comedy and relationship seriousness without losing too much of either although they err on the side of humor and that’s just fine. Susan and Peter (Kate Zehr and Bret Amundson) are splitting up and Bobby is the first to know although the reasons are never fully articulated but later on in the second act, maybe an explanation finally breaks through. Amundson and Zehr present a striking couple on stage, perhaps the closest representation of New York City’s upper middle class.
But, where we first begin to see some depth and something outside the immediate realm of comedy, in terms of acting, in these relationships is between Bobby, Jenny, and David. Jenny and David are played by Jennifer Graupman and Bryan Burns, who turn in a remarkable performance leading into “Sorry-Grateful,” when Bobby and David are left alone and Bobby asks if David ever is sorry he got married. Burns, Bennett, and Anderson harmonize in a woeful yet tenderly heart-warming confession about the painful joys of married life. Each actor inhabits the song and that makes the emotional punch that much more than the lyrics ever can be on their own.
The couples in the story aren’t the only women and men involved in Bobby’s life. Sarah Deiner (Kathy), Abbey Hegerfeld (Marta), and Amber Burns (April) are the unfinished parts of Bobby’s single life and they get some dazzling footwork on stage that make their roles not only interludes in the main story, but entertaining vignettes all their own. Director Evan Kelly plays double duty as choreographer and the women play the conscience of Bobby’s “other” life with light touches dipping into real emotion just enough to give flavor. Abby Hegerfeld gets the stage in “Another Hundred People” demonstrating a delightfully capable and full-throated rendition of the song, and Amber Burns turns in a touching performance with Sippola of “Barcelona” that is not to be missed.
Jenna Kelly (Amy) sings a masterful performance of one of the show’s tongue-twisting tour de force numbers, “Getting Married Today” with flair, breaking down the wall between audience and stage to add an extra punch to an already provocative lyric. She is accompanied by the wonderfully operatic singing of castmate Jennifer Graupman. Not only does Kelly manage to accomplish this remarkable feat, but moments later demonstrates some of the best acting of the show, turning down her fiance Paul’s marriage proposal (the day of the wedding) with a tone that is at once painful in its realism and relieving in its cathartic undertone. The other stand out performance in the show is Carolyn LePine’s biting yet somehow, inexplicably hopeful rendering of “The Ladies Who Lunch” where, swinging a cocktail glass and dripping with self-loathing sarcasm, LePine’s Joanne, manages to occupy an entire stage just from her pocket stage right with a bold and powerful voice. As far as the acting, LePine’s Joanne screws her wit and resentfulness at aging and marriage deep into the construction of the show’s “couple” dynamic, lending considerable contrast to the acting around her. Joanne is not a joiner, nor is she satisfied, and LePine manages to blend in to the bubbly and the quirky acting around her in stride.
The sound of the show is spot on. New mics and a sound system that is tailor made for the black box space of Teatro Zuccone gives the music the respect it deserves. The lighting design by Colleen Dunleap is adequate at creating mood, but there are times when the actors are not in their light or cues seem to come up too slowly and that can be distracting when it comes to the performances they’re delivering on stage. The only real flaw in the production is the set design. An attempt at a New York skyline is the only background we get from stage right and left. The rest is the black drape on stage and what appears to be a white semi-transparent batting of some sort. Even though the black box demands a certain spartan design, I do think the show deserves more. Thankfully, the performances on stage are so well-done that it isn’t dramatically distracting.
With Company, Renegade Theater Company proves, again, that it has yet to bite off more than it could chew. Since rebranding itself and choosing some of the most provocative and relevant black box theatre to put on the stage at Teatro Zuccone, the company shows again, with this production, that their selections are appropriate for the talent on stage, vocally and dramatically–showing the best of what we’ve got here in town and giving audiences the opportunity to experience timeless gems like Sondheim’s Company with artistic integrity. Genuinely well-produced shows continue to enhance Renegade’s identity, in this review’s opinion, of producing some of the finest musicals on the local stage.
COMPANY. Book by George Furth. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Evan Kelly for Renegade Theater Company at Teatro Zuccone. WITH Adam Sippola, Katy Helbacka, Andy Bennett, Kate Zehr, Bret Amundson, Jennifer Graupman, Bryan Burns, Jenna Kelly, Mike Pederson, Carolyn LePine, Greg J. Anderson, Abbey Hegerfeld, Sarah Diener, and Amber Burns. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays through September 1 at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth. Curtain: 8 p.m. This review is based on the August 16 opening night performance.