Some people look at the far-from-perfect marriages in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s groundbreaking 1970 musical and see a sour, shriveled-up view of the world.
Those people should take a look at director Frank McClain’s staging of the show at Mad Cow Theatre – as warm, emotional and generous a Company as I’ve seen.
Featuring Shawn Kilgore, a newcomer to Orlando theater, in the lead role of a man who is yearning for human connection, this Company finds that connection almost everywhere it turns. From the sisterhood of the women Bobby lets get away to the strength of the bonds between Company’s husbands and wives, Mad Cow’s production shows what Bobby is missing, and it makes his journey so much the sweeter for it.
Company was an innovation on Broadway in 1970, a musical more interested in concept than in plot. What story there is begins and ends at a surprise 35th-birthday party for Bobby, an eternal outsider who’s both attracted and repelled by the comfort and concessions his friends have found in their married lives. Nothing describes his ambivalence toward life’s ritualized pairings as the early song “Sorry-Grateful,” in which three of his male friends sing of their marriages and how their lives have “nothing to do with / all to do with her.”
But his friends are bent on shaking that ambivalence, and McClain – directing for the first time on either of Mad Cow’s little stages – has his actors circling Bobby, pressing in on him and hemming him in. During a hilarious, drink-driven karate demonstration between Michael Colavolpe’s Harry and Kate O’Neal’s Sarah, McClain has the men gathering like fight coaches in Colavolpe’s corner and the women offering solace and advice in O’Neal’s.
The intimacy of the theater works in its favor here, as it so often does; you’re right there with these people as they try to sort out their lives. But McClain both takes advantage of the smallness of the stage and pushes it: There’s even an actual chorus line in “Side by Side.”
As the couple who prove that those who bicker together stay together, O’Neal and Colavolpe are only two of an abundance of endearing actors here. Somehow Company gives most of the memorable roles to the women, but Joe Reed brings a wry warmth to Larry, a besotted husband who has seen it all. Sara Catherine Barnes (who was sad little Olive in Mad Cow’s Spelling Bee) is comically conventional and sweet-voiced as the experimental pot smoker Jenny; Heather Lea Charles is loose and nervy as Marta, one of Bobby’s would-be girlfriends, and Melissa Careccia is a stitch as April, the slow-on-the-uptake flight attendant he takes to bed.
Natalie Walker plays the reluctant bride Amy as a wise woman who’s only temporarily deranged (and she makes wonderful work of one of the show’s musical Matterhorns, “Getting Married Today”). And Elizabeth Murff may not have created the world-weary Joanne, but she puts her own ferocious stamp on a woman who is as formidable as they come.
Most of the rest of the cast are appealing, although one or two seem a little bland, and one or two have trouble keeping up with musical director Robin Jensen’s driving piano. Kilgore, too, may not have the vocal strength of the perfect Bobby, and on opening night he missed a note or two. But he’s a smart, expressive actor – so charismatic that you understand why Bobby’s friends are so devoted, so open that you hear the character’s emotional struggles in his lyrics and see them on his face. Kilgore’s Bobby has coasted on charm, but by the end of Mad Cow’s production he has put that aside for something deeper. Put them side by side – charm and perception – and you have a Company to love.
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17 (also, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 and Oct. 11).
Cost: $27 and $29 general, $15 Mondays.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Photos: Top left: Emily Bramblett, Shawn Kilgore, Melissa Careccia and Heather Charles. Middle left: Elizabeth Murff and Shawn Kilgore. Bottom right: Shawn Kilgore. All photos by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.