Theatre Three prides itself on being the Southwest's most frequent showcase for the works of Stephen Sondheim since 1969. The program for their newest effort, the complex and obtuse Company, features a photo of Sondheim onstage with artistic director Jac Alder.
When the now 70-year-old composer came to Dallas in 1994 to receive The Meadows Award, he stopped by the Quadrangle, where T3 was producing his obscure musical The Frogs, and met with Dallas veteran performers of his material to discuss the art and labor of live theater. I can say I've experienced two exceptional evenings with Sondheim and T3 -- his fairy-tale vivisection Into the Woods and Assassins, his wondrous investigation into the aspirations of the killers and would-be killers of American presidents.
Every bit as daring as those excursions is Company, Sondheim's look at the amorous meandering of a 35-year-old bachelor and his concerned married friends, who are always trying to get him hitched even as they themselves doubt the meaning and purpose of their own betrothals. But if Theatre Three has a national reputation as a Sondheim specialist, it has either gotten mired in that artist's most inscrutable excesses or crashed into its own limitations of interpretation.
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I'm going to declare it 60 percent of the former and 40 percent of the latter. Company is vague and circular and so obsessed with loneliness and the fear of loneliness that it misses some gaping dramatic opportunities to pick intently at the same scab. Director-costumer-choreographer Bruce Coleman falls from the great height of his recent successes with T3's The Boyfriend and The Women with this, one of the longest theatrical experiences I've recently endured. After a while, it began to feel like a hostage situation, and Sondheim, Coleman, and his cast never stated their demands.
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Company attempts to impose a musical format on the dilemma of Bobby (a serviceable but distinctly undynamic Stan Graner), who fields the concerns, the overtures, and the marital conflicts of four couples as he encounters three very different girlfriends (Lisa J. Miller, Susan Read, Stacia Goad Malone) in the anonymous morass of New York City. Nobody knows what they want, and when they manage to figure that out, they don't want it after they get it. The score and lyrics reiterate this so often that you begin to feel you're wasting precious moments of your life chasing some very self-absorbed individuals through the twisty maze of their confusion. Given Coleman's recent musical success with the meringue-light The Boyfriend, the stumbling throughout Theatre Three's current show might seem surprising...until you stop to think about it.
Other than the costumes and scenic details required by his outright period or stylized exercises like Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, Sondheim works best with a minimum of visual flourish. His lyrics will inevitably seize your attention, so it's best not to scatter audience concentration; they are so fine-tuned to the emotional states of the characters in any given scene, their feelings almost become another layer of costume. Coleman tends to have a ball with theatrical artifice (although the quality performances he often elicits lack that tinny, Ludlamian ring), but the minimalist Company moves lightly, almost imperceptibly, 180 degrees in the opposite direction. As a result, you picture Coleman in your head standing by at rehearsals with a giant dripping paintbrush, waiting to cover something -- anything -- in an extravagant coat. The elusive Company resists him at every turn, choosing instead to rock back and forth with an almost autistic self-absorption.
When Coleman does seize the production long enough to inject a little showbiz, the results are most unfortunate. Maybe there is residue from The Boyfriend still lingering in his bloodstream, because the hip-swaying, palm-rotating choreography he has envisioned for this show sticks out like Busby Berkley in a Brecht production. With all the references to "squares," and the tall, vaguely early-'70s dos some of the women sport onstage, I couldn't help but think of Love, American Style. When applied to book and lyrics that explore (albeit repetitiously) the silky and prickly patches of love, Sondheim-style, the cutesy moves range from distracting to embarrassing.
There's also a simple but major casting problem in this show -- Nye Cooper, Donald Fowler, and Marco Salinas are baby-faced fellows who could more successfully pull off teenagers than thirtysomethings peering at middle age from the camouflage of their life's delusions. It's not that the role of a husband is beyond any one of these guys. (None of the male characters in this show travels very far; they exist to compare and contrast with Bobby, who is himself defined more by what he isn't than what he is.) It's that their presence alongside Stan Graner, Lisa Anne Haram, and April Sayre, who all appear older than the aforementioned trio, shatters the credibility of the characters' anxieties and disappointments.
The actresses in Company seem a much more natural fit for their characters, and two of them create exciting ripples when they trudge through this sludge. The show's most compelling scene comes when a nerve-wracked Amy (April Sayre) steps fearfully into her wedding day, hears the doors slam behind her, and begins pounding on the walls in a desperate escape attempt. Sayre is riveting in her free-form babbling to Paul (Fowler), a longtime live-in lover whose role in her life is examined breathlessly and with desperate tardiness in the shadow of an impending marriage. She turns to God, Catholic guilt, and Jewish exoticness to fumble for a way to trivialize what they have shared.
Stacia Goad-Malone is hilarious as Marta, Bobby's most intense girlfriend and a woman whose funeral ashes will likely be poured into concrete and laid as pavement on New York streets, so utterly devoted is she to that city's urban mystique.
One of the chief problems with Company is a basic contradiction that any great artist faces when he or she deals with emotional ambivalence: It's extremely difficult to milk dramatic urgency out of characters who are paralyzed by conflicted feelings. Watching one showstopper after another express basically the same sentiment -- "I'm afraid of loneliness, but I'm terrified of commitment" -- gets monotonous, no matter how recognizable may be that trapped sensation. Of course, the whole point of the show is that Bobby is straitjacketed, yearning for love but frightened to find it. His dilemma is too cerebral, too internalized to be effectively explored in show-tune format. I've ragged on American musicals frequently in this space for sentiment and emotional oversimplification, so in theory, I raise a toast to Stephen Sondheim for this ballsy experiment -- a gigantic canvas boasting a million different shades of gray. The closer you get to the surface, though, the subtle shades blur into a smothering miasma. Theatre Three fails to make a coherent, compelling composition from all that oppressive sameness.
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