by Lynn on June 29, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs.

Directed by Gary Griffin
Associate director, Adam Brazier
Musical Direction by Scott Christian
Choreographed by Marc Kimelman
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Michelle Tracey
Lighting by Stephen Ross
Sound by Emily Porter
Starring: Brent Carver
Dan Chameroy
Lindsey Frazier
David Keeley
Jeff Lillico
W. Joe Matheson
Marisa McIntyre
Nora McLellan
Louise Pitre
Eliza-Jane Scott
Carly Street
Seven Sutcliffe
Nia Vardalos
Cleopatra Williams

A problem-laden production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical.

The Story. It’s Robert’s 35th birthday. His good friends—five couples–are throwing him a surprise party. As the cake is brought on, complete with lots of lit candles, the dynamics of the friends and Robert are played out. We get the idea right away about his friends. There is a lot of comment about what happens if he doesn’t blow out the candles on the cake in one blow—does he get his wish? Is it a partial wish?

All the couples love Robert. He is not really the odd man out because he’s single. He’s the object of envy of most of his married men friends because he is single. (At the moment he’s dating three women and ‘loves’ all of them for various reasons.) Robert’s women friends either want to go to bed with him or mother him. He likes them because he feels safe with them, until they urge him to marry or at least to commit. Commitment is a hard thing for Robert. He often proposes but then has to back off when he’s forced to really commit to the offer. When he says to one couple that he wants to find a woman like the one in that couple’s relationship, he believes it, for that moment, and says if the relationship fails he’ll offer himself to the woman friend. The couple look at him askance. They don’t believe him. Others of his circle would jump at the chance but that scares Robert.

We witness that every couple has its issues. Also when they get together with Robert they really don’t know him and he really doesn’t know them. He is not the first person with whom they share information. Harry and Sarah have not told him that Harry is on the wagon, sort of. Sarah bickers with Harry over exactly how long he’s stopped drinking. Robert doesn’t know that Sarah is addicted to food.

Peter and Susan are the perfect couple except that they are getting a divorce. Also news to Robert. Paul and Amy are a wonderful couple who decide to get married except that Amy has a melt-down and expresses her angst at breakneck speed, to music. Robert is the best man, and seems surprised at the melt-down. Paul is calm to a point. David and Jenny smoke pot with Robert one night for a change. David is an old hand at it. Jenny is new to it. When she goes for food for the group Robert thinks that Jenny had a great time. David disagrees, saying she did it for him and she hated it. David is perhaps the most perceptive of the group. Again, Robert misses the clues. Finally, there is the much married Joanne and her third husband Larry. She drinks excessively and bitches about everything. He smiles adoringly at her. When they are out with Robert, she is at her most brittle. Larry says his wife always runs herself down and doesn’t see that her husband adores her and that she is really insecure. Another perceptive husband, and too good for his wife. When Larry goes to pay the bill, Joanne asks Robert when they are going to do it together. Again Robert is stunned.

Robert has three girlfriends on the go. He and April, an airline stewardess (this is 1970s), have passionate sex and the next day he asks her to stay, but she has to catch a flight. He’s ok with that. Then he misremembers her name. And when she agrees to stay, It’s the last thing he really wants. (“Oh God!”).

The Production. This production has been beset with problems and challenges. First, director Gary Griffin badly hurt his leg, required surgery and was not mobile as a result. Adam Brazier, the Chair of the Artistic Board and a founding member of Theatre 20, stepped in to be associate director trying to adhere to the spirit of Griffin’s ideas. Then two actors had to withdraw for personal reasons and were replaced after rehearsals began.

That said who does one blame for this unwieldy, sprawling, occasionally unevenly acted/sung production; and who does one praise when it works?

Music Director Scott Christian and his piano are on a raised platform at the back of the stage. His band is spread across the back on either side of him.

Ken MacDonald has designed an efficient set of moveable components (a sofa, a rug, a bar, a bed) that can be shifted easily establishing each new scene. The problem is that while the places of scenes are set, the performing of the scenes are often not confined there. So while Robert’s party is in the apartment of one of the couples, the production numbers of the large cast sprawl across the vastness of the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs. One wonders therefore, where are we really? And, man, is that stage wide! And, boy, does the direction struggle to confine/contain scenes. And it’s so wide that often you can’t hear an actor way over there on the other side of the stage.

Some directorial decisions seem downright odd. I don’t believe that Robert would do some preparatory push-ups when April arrives at his door. Robert is so assured of his allure to women he wouldn’t need it. It seems a desperate grasp for an easy laugh. Also it’s mystifying why Robert sits down on the stage at moments when he is lost or emotionally defeated, for the simple reason that the people at the back can’t see him. Dressing Marta in torn jeans and soft boots as if she’s a biker chick might be fine in some quarters, but makes no sense as someone who would be attractive to Robert.

Doing musical theatre, let alone Sondheim, is challenging enough to those trained in it. Why then cast Nia Vardalos as Jenny when she is so out of her depth? Her voice is pleasant enough, but most of the time she looks frightened.

As Joanne, Louise Pitre is so dour and grimacing when she lobs her many barbs, that when she comes to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” she’s down right caustic. The performance lacks irony, nuance or subtly. One wonders how Joanne could have been married three times with that venom in her, or why Robert likes her at all.

One is grateful (not ‘sorry-grateful’ as Sondheim eloquently writes), very grateful for Dan Chameroy as Robert. Chameroy’s personal charm as an actor goes a long way to win us over to the self-centered, profoundly uncommitted man who strings women along and pretends to really want to get married and he’s ready etc.

As Amy, Carly Street nails the killingly difficult “Getting Married Today,” in which she lists the reasons why she doesn’t want to get married. Street brings a fresh, flightiness to Amy that is endearing. It’s a ‘sucker song’ guaranteed to rouse the audience. It doesn’t make it any easier to do.

As Paul, the intended groom, Jeff Lillico is boyish and understanding to Amy. He’s been there before. As Harry, Brent Carver brings his mastery of getting to the heart of a lyric in his singing of “Sorry-Grateful” as does Steven Sutcliffe as David. Sutcliffe’s voice is pure, true and full of poignancy.

Comment. For those of us who grew up on musicals, Stephen Sondheim is at the top of Mount Olympus when it comes to erudite, thoughtful, difficult work. And Company is up there with his best. Sondheim writes of loneliness in and outside of relationships; the difficulty of relationships; commitment or lack thereof. He knows it’s a double edged sword when he writes that one is ‘sorry-grateful’ to be in a relationship. He digs deep into the constriction and the freedom of being connected to another human being, when he talks about being crowded by love; or held too close.

That said, I think Company speaks to a former time and mindset. Contrary to the rambling, confusing, overlong program note by Paige Lansky, Company is dated, much as I love it (I don’t speak of this production, but of Sondheim’s musical). We live in a world so narcissistic, self-absorbed, and insulated people don’t deal with each other face to face but by text, or e-mail. People walk like lemmings with their heads down, thumbs flicking the keys of a device, unaware of other people. Robert was aware of people. He sought them out although he didn’t commit. Today’s youth? Those electronically addicted? Don’t even connect or engage face to face let alone commit.

I can appreciate the appeal of Company to Theatre 20. I just wished it was a more polished, better directed and more evenly performed production.

A Concern. Dealing with Theatre 20 to organize an interview was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had with a company that professes to be professional. I can appreciate the pressures everyone was under. I can appreciate everyone pitches in to help. But getting a simple answer to an interview request proved impossible. And if a person listed as producer says they will get back to me about interview details then I expect an e-mail as follow up. I’m still waiting and that was about two weeks ago. I did hear from Adam Brazier who had to do damage control along with his other duties. He said that with all the crises pr had to take a back burner. No. PR is on the front burner always.

It’s wonderful that such talented people bandied together to form a company to do work they might not get a chance to do. But theatre is a hard slog, requiring diligence, attention to detail, and not letting any opportunity go. It is not just pie in the sky dreaming of “getting a barn; putting on a show; and taking it to Broadway.” Learn the basics from those who have gone before and prospered, not just Soulpepper, but the smaller, scrappier companies like Red One Theatre Collective who can tap dance rings around most people for getting the word out and using social media.

Theatre 20 can’t be this sloppy or complacent again. You have too much at stake.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mary Lou Fallis June 29, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Thank you Ms. Slotkin…v. Much appreciated. I love Dan. C. he is extraordinary..
Talk soon. I will let you know what
I think. MLFx


2 Kent James July 13, 2014 at 11:51 pm

Great review.

Your choice to tell us bout your concerns for the company is interesting – wouldn’t genuine concern for the company be better served by telling them?