The all-student talent of USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory rises to the many challenges of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company—and then some—in an intimate staging that stands out as one of the finest of the eighteen MTR productions I’ve reviewed over the past nine years.
As black-and-white clad party guests await the arrival of just-turning-35 birthday boy Robert (Tyler Ellis) in stark tableau, director Taubert Nadalini makes it clear from the surreal get-go that this isn’t going to be any kind of by-the-numbers staging of the 1970 Broadway classic.
Choreographer Sophie Thomason then establishes one of the production’s principal leitmotifs as assembled partygoers rotate in circles around Bobby, a strikingly visual metaphor for the world of married couples revolving around a protagonist stuck in his mid-30s singlehood.
In what must have been a revolutionary approach for its day, Company introduces us to Bobby’s buddies, couple by couple, in a series of disconnected sequences taking the place of a more linear plotline.
First up is the self-proclaimedly on-the-wagon Harry (Patrick Olsen) and his ever-dieting wife Sarah (Kristen Garrett), whose martial arts demonstration reveals considerably marital strain amidst audience laughs.
Next we meet Peter and Susan (Larson Eernissee and Selene Klasner), a metrosexual New Yorker and his Southern belle wife who, Bobby learns with considerable surprise, are about to be happily divorced.
Company next introduces us to alpha male David (Michael Yapujian) and straight-laced Jenny (Molly Chiffer), the couple doing their best to get Bobby stoned in an attempt to loosen him up enough to find out why he’s so darned resistant to walking down the aisle.
Speaking of which, Amy (Maxine Phoenix) may or may not be getting married today to her Jewish fiancé Paul (Harrison Poe), her doubts and fears revealed in the appropriately titled “Getting Married Today,” quite possibly the lickety-splittest song in the history of American musical theater.
Completing Bobby’s circle of married friends are over-40 Joanne (Annika Ellwanger-Chavez) and hubby number three Larry (Austin Dalgleish), who take Bobby out for a night on the town only to have a steadily more sloshed Joanne launch into Sondheim’s justly famed toast to “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Then there are Bobby’s latest three girlfriends: warm-hearted Kathy (Francesca Calvo), on her way out of the big city and into married life in the country; spacey flight attendant April (Shannon Sheridan); and quintessential New Yorker Marta (Brooke Lewis), who celebrates “a city of strangers, some come to stare, some to stay” in the Sondheim classic “Another Hundred People.”
All of these characters exert their influence over Bobby, the result of which he expresses in the wistful “Someone Is Waiting,” the conflicted “Marry Me A Little,” and the acidic but ultimately celebratory “Being Alive,” songs featuring some of Sondheim’s most evocative lyrics.
Nadalini and Thomason’s creative touches dazzle throughout, aided and abetted by Zachary Blumner’s imaginative scenic design, one whose furniture-on-rollers moves about almost as much as the cast, Justus Bradshaw’s dramatic lighting adding to the ever-morphing images.
Most stunning of all is the Act Two-opening “”Side By Side By Side”/”What Would We Do Without You?”, a show-stopper that has the entire company first breaking into a Fosse/Bennett-worthy straw hats-and-canes dance number, then morphing into a circus extravaganza that earns deserved cheers.
Unlike last fall’s Heathers: The Musical, whose young cast played mostly their own ages, Company gives rising Trojan stars the chance to undertake roles they may have to wait years if not decades to perform professionally, admittedly a challenge for actors barely entering their twenties, but one which the MTR company meets with flying colors.
Olsen and Garrett are a hoot as self-proclaimed teetotalers Harry and Sarah, whose karate combat is as funny as it is physical. Eernissee’s Robert and Klasner’s Susan are equally delightful, the former scoring points for his deliciously awkward attempt at same-sex seduction, the latter’s soprano soaring in “Getting Married Today.”
Yapujian and Chiffer get hilariously high before Phoenix’s high-speed attempt at resisting wedding bells proves every bit the show-stopper it’s supposed to be, Poe providing stubbornly loving support. Opposite Dalgleish’s patiently menschy Larry, a stunning Ellwanger-Chavez sings the living daylights out of “Ladies Who Lunch.”
Lewis’s Marta, Calvo’s Kathy, and Sheridan’s April harmonize to Andrews Sisters perfection in “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” in addition to their terrifically performed one-on-ones opposite the man they all three share.
Last but most definitely not least is Ellis’s revelatory Bobby, every bit the “cutie” one of his friends describes, and despite Bobby’s tendency towards the wishy-washy, a man we can’t help but root for. (That Ellis makes “Marry Me A Little” and “Being Alive” a pair of power-packers is icing on Bobby’s birthday cake.)
Edina Hiser’s striking costumes and Stephen Jensen’s pitch-perfect sound design are winners too, as is Sasha Bartol’s once again impeccable musical direction, backed by pro-caliber orchestra members Cyrus Elia, Jeff Frantom, Joshua Ginsburg, Ian Hubbell, Sophie Mathieu, Julian McClanahan, Mica Nafshun-Bone, Emma Reinhart, Steven Robinson, and Collin Schuster.
Sophia Pesetti is stage manager.
Transfer Musical Theatre Repertory’s Company from the matchbook-sized Massman Theater to the campus’s big-stage Bing and you’d have a production that could easily equal any of USC’s faculty-directed-and-choreographed spring musicals. Simply put, it is one of MTR’s very best ever.
Massman Theatre at USC.
January 19, 2017
Photos: Bryan Li