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Robert Bartley (c) and the cast of Company
(Photo by Richard Feldman)
Company, the groundbreaking 1970 musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, is a masterpiece of the American musical theatre. It is also, by virtue of its lengthy book scenes and a main character who spends most of the evening reacting to other people, a Herculean challenge for any director. That Julianne Boyd's production for the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Massachusetts is, for the most part, a success is due largely to her uncanny ability to cast roles perfectly--and to the fresh, exciting performances of that cast.

The story of Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor who observes his friends' marriages but can't commit to one himself, Company begins and ends with a birthday party being thrown in the central character's honor. Over the course of the evening, we see through Bobby's eyes the travails of married life as exhibited by the dysfunctional relationships of his friends in a series of one-act plays that, we ultimately come to understand, are all taking place in his memory. By the conclusion of the show, it is clear that Bobby has decided not to attend his own party. His friends finally realize that they need to leave him alone if he is to get on with his life.

Communicating Bobby's growth and maturation is one of the most vexing challenges in staging Company; to that end, Boyd has made a superb casting choice in Robert Bartley. A veteran of such New York shows as Miss Saigon, Cats, and Exactly Like You, Bartley gives a penetrating and brilliantly sung performance, "listening" with his eyes and allowing the audience to fully understand what he is feeling through his facial expressions and his demeanor. That he makes "Being Alive," Bobby's sung-to-death eleven o'clock number, seem revelatory is high praise indeed.

Excepting Dean Jones' performance in the Company original cast reunion concerts at Lincoln Center in 1993, Bartley's Bobby is the finest this reviewer has ever seen--which makes it all the more painful to report that Boyd has made the monumental mistake of cutting Bobby's first-act song, "Someone Is Waiting." In this essential number, Bobby rhapsodizes over the things he loves about the married women who are his friends. "Someone is Waiting" illuminates and clarifies the character's inability to commit to a relationship of his own, and the show suffers enormously from its absence. (The fact that Bartley would have sung the song superbly only grinds the salt into the wound.)

Additionally, the choice to update the action of Company to the present day--a concept initiated with the Donmar Warehouse revival of 1995 and carried over to the Roundabout Theatre's subsequent, unsuccessful production--makes much less sense than allowing the show to remain a period piece. At BSC, certain words, phrases, and references seem ridiculous in a show that's now supposed to be taking place in the year 2000. To cite only one example: Who in New York today has an answering service?

All of the above is doubly unfortunate given the overall quality of Boyd's production. With the exception of a few moments here and there, the pacing is smooth and the action is well staged, allowing the talented cast to shine brightly. As Harry, Michael J. Farina sings a heartfelt "Sorry-Grateful" along with Larry Cahn (David) and David Brummel (Larry). The men's roles in Company are largely underwritten, but Brummel makes the most of his short second-act scene as the husband of the caustic Joanne, played with relish and flair by the sultry Alison Bevan.

Bobby's girlfriends really get to shine at BSC. Pamela Bob, as Kathy, is heartbreaking as she informs Bobby that she is marrying someone else; Erin Gilliland is winning as April, the stewardess who decides not to fly to Barcelona the morning after her tryst with our hero; and, as Marta, Becca Ayers adds just the right mix of zany, lower East-side kookiness to Bobby's uptight life. (Ayers' knockout performance of "Another Hundred People" is a musical highlight.)

Among the wives, Marylee Graffeo's Jenny and Brandy Zarle's Amy are sensational. Graffeo's great comic timing and inspired line readings in the famous pot-smoking scene keeps the audience in stitches, while Zarle's manic, bewildered, marriage-phobic portrayal of Amy is infused with a marvelous edge that works perfectly. This performance could be the measure by which all future Amys are judged.

Musical director Darren Cohen expertly leads a seven-piece combo that plays well and doesn't overpower the singers; still, it must be said that a full orchestra (or, at least, a handful of strings) is greatly missed, as it would be for any Sondheim score. Jeff Croiter's lighting and Jim van Bergen sound are well done, but John Coyne's scenic design is questionable. No one expects a set to rival Boris Aronson's stunning cubist vision of New York for the original Broadway production of Company, but this reviewer has a problem with the dress mannequins, the little red wagon filled with sprouting grass, and the large loading-dock dolly that seem omnipresent on stage at BSC--all unexplained. Louisa Thompson's costumes are terrific, considering the ill-advised shift in the show's time period.