Hugh Panaro is completely engaging in Fifth Avenue Theatre's complex and confident revival of Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical.
Set in circa 1970 Manhattan, the show showcases five marriages as observed by perpetual bachelor Robert (Hugh Panaro). He's unfailingly agreeable, and a convenient blank slate against which his married pals chart their relationships. Robert is Sondheim's ultimate anti-hero: a man who can't even wish on his birthday candles. So until Robert learns to want something, the couples entertain him with portraits of marriage in all its dysfunctional glory.
First up are Sarah (the rubber-faced Bobbi Kotula) and Harry (David Quicksall), who literally throw each other around their living in an impromptu karate match. Perched above them on James Wolk's urban jungle of a set -- all 90-degree angles and hard silver edge -- the cynical Joanne (Shelly Burch) croons about the "The Little Things You Do Together," like the "neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together." No wonder Robert has his doubts about matrimony.
But we're in Sondheim territory. In another few minutes, the husbands sing "Sorry-Grateful," which is their response to Robert's pointed query: Are you ever sorry you got married? In Company, that's hardly a yes-or-no question. The men answer tenderly that "You're always who you always were, and that has nothing to do with, all to do with, her."
The snuggliest (and dullest) couple are Susan (the angelic-voiced Susannah Mars) and Peter (Timothy McCuen Piggee). One minor detail: their divorce is in the works. Meanwhile, Robert watches as Jenny (Anne Allgood) and David (David Drummond) pay the price for domestic harmony with subtle mind games and mute transactions. In response to a single husbandly cue, Allgood shifts nimbly from pot-smoking potty mouth to straight-laced PTA mom.
Costume designer Lynda L. Salsbury saddles Jenny with a dowdy jacket and skirt straight out of the Sally Forth cartoon strip, and a cheap-looking wig rounds out the effect. The other characters are luckier, but the costume for Kathy (Anne Lauris), one of Robert's former girlfriends, suggests that perhaps she moonlights as a doorman.
Panaro is all polish and panache as Robert. Whether refereeing a fight, seducing April, a ditzy flight attendant (Billie Wildrick, sporting another cheap wig), in "Barcelona," or doing the soft shoe in "Side by Side by Side," he's never less than engaging. His breakthrough number, "Someone is Waiting," shows off his luscious baritone voice to full and moving effect.
The comedic highlight of the show is Kendra Kassebaum's turn as the neurotic, high-strung Amy. Adorable in a babydoll wedding dress and kooky blonde curls, she delivers the dizzying tongue twisters of "Getting Married Today" with sparkle and snap. The production's weak spot is Burch; she has a great set of pipes, but her acting style is pure soap opera and a jarring contrast to the rest of the cast.