- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical "Company" is not the ghoulish crowd-pleaser that "Sweeney Todd" can be. It's a trickier work for a variety of reasons. But director Sean Mathias makes this gorgeously retro, witty production soar.
The main conundrum is the character of Bobby (John Barrowman), the commitment-shy New Yorker both beloved and besieged by his friends. They are five affluent married couples who want him to get with the program and find a bride. To see so many people fussing over a guy unmarried at 35 is kind of adorable, considering how extended childhood has flourished in the 30 years since "Company" made its debut.
By keeping "Company" firmly in the swinging '70s (Catherine Zuber's elegantly neutral cream-and-brown palette makes the costumes both high-fashion and a total hoot), Mr. Mathias satisfactorily solves the "Bobby problem."
After all, Bobby and his friends are still riding the 1960s youth-quake wave in which you are never supposed to trust anyone over 30 and here they are, in their 30s. In fact, well-to-do WASPS Joanne and Larry (richly played by Lynn Redgrave and Jerry Lanning) are a decade or two older. The group finds itself caught between dizzying new freedoms and the old construct of marriage. Do you catch the wave or do what your parents did marry and have children?
If Bobby were played too glibly, he would come across as some sort of opportunistic lounge lizard. If he were played too guilelessly, he would seem like a clueless idiot. Mr. Barrowman's Bobby has a charm that reminds one of Hugh Grant with Tom Cruise's killer smile. Then there's his terrific voice, which has a warmth to it that takes the chill off Mr. Sondheim's lyrics.
The musical takes place on Bobby's 35th birthday, when his friends are throwing him a surprise party. This is a perfect time for Bobby and his pals to reflect on their relationships with one another and for Bobby to wonder why he's the only unmarried person in the group.
Bobby's frequent interactions with the couples lead him to the gorgeous song at the show's end, "Being Alive," when he realizes being a lone wolf isn't all it's cracked up to be. After this soaring breakthrough, he declares that he wants to take the chance, be afraid, get his heart broken or whatever happens when you decide to love and be loved.
Leading up to that triumphant, scary moment is one walloping musical. Miss Redgrave adds bite and class to "The Little Things You Do Together," a Noel Coward-ish ditty about the joys of marriage sung while the other couples bicker and generally drive each other crazy. She also is both touching and brittlely imposing when she sings the knowing tribute to upper-class emptiness, "The Ladies Who Lunch." She nearly rips your heart out when she commands, "Rise, rise, rise."
The couples live vicariously through Bobby, and vice versa, as glimpsed in the scenes in which Sarah (Keira Naughton) and Harry (David Pittu) discuss her dieting and his drinking problem over brownies and bourbon, or a vignette with the square Jenny (Emily Skinner) getting stoned for the first time with her husband, David (Marc Vietor), and Bobby as they plop on three identical white beanbag chairs. Bobby wants to keep going, but Jenny gently says: "We've behaved like kids tonight. That's enough for now."
Bobby keeps asking what he's missing by not being married, and the men (Mr. Pittu, Mr. Vietor and Mr. Lanning) give him the answer in the beautifully pragmatic "Sorry-Grateful," in which ambivalence is expressed as achingly as it ever has been. This ambivalence takes a comic turn in "Getting Married Today" as the hilariously frazzled Amy (Alice Ripley) rips through a high-speed rant about pre-wedding jitters while standing at the sink in her wedding gown accessorized by bright-yellow rubber kitchen gloves.
Accompanied by some rollicking 1970s choreography (think "The Carol Burnett Show"), the cast swings around on a moving staircase while zippily performing the three-song cycle "Side by Side by Side," "Poor Baby" and "Barcelona." By the way, the single women in Bobby's life are winning, too, especially Marcy Harriell as the energetic firecracker Marta and Kim Director as the ditsy-but-not-really airline stewardess, April.
"Company" has some rough spots some missteps in the choreography and some microphone problems but it is such a rich experience because of this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants quality. The audience catches the exhilaration of the recklessness, the risk and the giving of all your heart and soul to the work.

****
WHAT: "Company"
WHEN: In rotation with "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park With George," through June 29
WHERE: The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
TICKETS:$20 to $79
PHONE: 202/467-4600
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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