By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Cocktail hour extends to nearly three in WaterTower Theatre's bouncy, boozy production of Company. The Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical finds a group of five upscale married couples gathering for the 35th birthday of bachelor Bobby (Donald Fowler), a 1970s Manhattan playboy with an aversion to settling down. Everybody sings, and everybody drinks.
The 15 songs in Company ooze with martini-soaked regret, recrimination and, finally, celebration. They are some of Sondheim's most memorable show tunes sung by some of the most urbane and complex characters in musical theater. There's the oldest and drunkest of the five wives, the acerbic Joanne (wonderfully underplayed by Kristina Baker), who slurs her phrases while toasting the empty lives of "The Ladies Who Lunch'' (a showstopper performed here with great restraint). Bickering couple Sarah and Harry (the smart and funny Linda Leonard and Bob Hess) pour drinks for Bobby even though they're resolutely on the wagon. So while Bobby gulps down his whiskeys, they engage in a comic karate exhibition. Looking on like a tippling Greek chorus, the other couples serenade the scene with "The Little Things You Do Together,'' an ode to marital peeves. Dishy lyrics: "It's sharing little winks together/Drinks together, kinks together/That make marriage a joy/The bargains that you shop together/Cigarettes you stop together/Clothing that you swap together/That make perfect relationships.'' Uh, huh.
Throughout this show's two acts, characters toddle about in varying states of inebriation and angst. Ice cubes tinkle in highball glasses, liquor bottles are proffered by partygoers, the "square couple'' toke themselves into giddy bliss as they flop with Bobby into black beanbag chairs. It all feels like a noisy, gin-soaked soiree attended by pretty people with some pretty big problems. Yet, unlike most parties with an open bar, it's a lot of fun to watch.
The topic on everyone's mind at this party isn't drinking, actually. It's marriage, not just how to get Bobby to the altar with one of his covey of lovelies (the couples work on him with the fervor of cult leaders trapping a new recruit), but why people get married in the first place. One answer, uttered almost as a throwaway at the end, is "for company.''
That might be the best reason for Bobby to hook a bride. He's attractive, successful (we never know what he does, but his sleek apartment hints at some cush Madison Avenue job) and straight. Mostly, anyway. His pal Peter (Tee Quillin) gets Bobby to admit--after a few drinks, natch--that he might have engaged in some lavender love way back when. They didn't use "metrosexual'' in the '70s when this show was a Broadway hit, but Bobby might have been the first to tread the Great White Way.
Company does date back a ways, but unlike other musicals from that period, it doesn't sound dated. Part of its timelessness is the way it plays with time. The show's storytelling device gives the action the stop-time dreaminess of a hangover. The plot, such as it is, unfolds all in Bobby's mind in the seconds between his birthday candles being lit (the opening of Act 1) and the moment he blows them out with a hopeful wish for happiness (finale of Act 2). Bobby's entire midlife crisis occurs in that flash. We know he's through it at the end when he sings the soaring "Being Alive,'' in which he declares that love might, after all, be more rewarding than a one-nighter with a beautiful flight attendant.
WaterTower's cast, directed by Terry Martin, is top-shelf. Donald Fowler looks the right age for Bobby, and that Hugh Grant flop of hair on his brow gives him the ragged handsomeness the character needs. He's in fine voice here, too, particularly on "Being Alive.'' Two of Bobby's single galpals are terrific. As Marta, the Manhattan newcomer still thrilled about riding subway trains, Jennifer Green (the discovery from WaterTower's Spitfire Grill) rips into the difficult "Another Hundred People'' and makes it a powerful anthem about loneliness and big-city life. Amy Askins, as April the lanky, dipsy-doodle stewardess (what they still called them then), deadpans her lines and then cocks her bony hip for emphasis. She and Bobby connect in the haunting morning-after song "Barcelona.''
Randel Wright's scenic design and Michael Robinson's costumes evoke strong colors, lines and silhouettes of '70s Manhattan without getting disco-kitschy. If only Jason S. Foster's lighting design were so carefully rendered. On opening night, the follow spots were all over the place, and funny shadows fell here and there. Musical direction by Scott A. Eckert, who doubles on keyboards, is fine as wine. The five-piece ensemble is tucked into the rafters somewhere, but reed players Paul Dutka and Danny Smolenski should step out for some applause one of these nights.
Sophisticated, crisp and bubbly, Company is the champagne of American musicals. We'll all drink to that.
The bus doesn't move, of course. Neither does the show. For close to three hours--a much longer three than Company's--characters get on and off that bus (actually a plywood half-bus seen in side view) taking them from North Carolina to Oklahoma. As concepts for musical theater go, this has to be one of the worst ever. Based on the story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, Violetworks from a humorless book by Brian Crawley and painfully tuneless, cliché-ridden songs by Jeanine Tesori. They should have put this show on a bus and sent it to some musical theater graveyard to die (alongside Grit and Bombay Dreams).
The title character is a 25-year-old country girl (played by Ashley Puckett-Gonzales as though she's mentally challenged) who thinks her prominent facial scar, the result of an ax accident, has ruined her chances of happiness. Following the death of her parents, Violet hops a bus bound for Tulsa, where she hopes a miracle-spouting TV evangelist will heal her deformity.
On the bus, Violet meets a couple of young GIs, Monty (Michael Newberry) and African-American Flick (Markus Lloyd). The three swig from the same flask, get off the bus and get plowed together in the blues bars of Memphis. Violet, who is both devoutly religious and a bit of a slut, sleeps with Monty. But Flick falls in love with her for reasons no sane person could comprehend.
Ah, forgot to mention that Violet is set in 1964, a particularly dicey time for interracial romance in the Deep South. The soldiers are about to ship out for Vietnam, too, giving the romantic storyline a deadline.
Violet has no idea what it wants to say. Like scenic designer Claire DeVries' unbalanced set (oh, that crappy bus), the show has no focal point. One minute it's an indictment of fundamentalist religion. The next it's about a girl's damaged self-image (by the way, Puckett-Gonzales wears no scar of any kind for the role). Then it becomes about father-daughter issues. Or maybe the interracial thing.
In 19 songs, Violet keeps singing the same tune over and over. She's ugly. She's not ugly. She's lonely. She's not lonely. Aw, whatever, dude.
Roses are red, Violet blew.