Stephen Sondheim’s concept musical Company is 40 years old. It is still perfectly delightful, perfectly surprising, and still perfectly Sondheim, with its lyrical tricks and songs that require performers to go without oxygen for an almost inhuman amount of time. There’s a reason someone thinks to revive it once every so often, and it’s not simply because brilliant writing can put a Band-Aid over all manner of a given production’s sins. It’s because, of course, that Sondheim wrote this comedy about infinite things—love and relationships, the challenges of one or both, the state of our human lives. To see his work performed is both effortless and profoundly challenging. He changed American musical theater forever, to the point where he has become synonymous with the idea that beneath all the happiness and light, the cheery music and dance steps, lurks a deeper truth and a potentially devastating dark.
The story is told through a series of vignettes connected by perpetual bachelor Bobby’s surprise birthday party. He’s turning 35, and he has three different girlfriends and zero interest in settling down much to the chagrin of his many coupled off friends. There’s Harry and Sarah, an alcoholic and a chronic dieter, respectively. Then there’s Susan, a Southern lady prone to fainting spells, who’s married to Peter, who might be gay. Then there’s uptight Jenny and controlling David, neurotic Catholic Amy and Jewish Paul, acerbic Joanne and affable Larry (he’s her third husband). Each couple faces different issues, but as Bobby learns, it’s better that they face those problems together.
Considering Sondheim’s broad strokes (as far as theme is concerned, anyway), it is then interesting to consider the fact that traditionally, the entire casts of various Company productions—from Bobby, the lead, right down to the smallest supporting roles—have almost always been lily-white. Raúl Esparza, who is Cuban and played Bobby in the 2006 Broadway revival, is of course a notable exception. But in the beginning, this made sense enough. Written and first performed in the seventies, the series of connected vignettes centers around upper middle class friends living in New York City. They have dinner parties. They have apartments with terraces. And what’s more, Broadway has a history, as many things that require money do, as being an activity for rich white people.
But now, a lack of non-white faces just might be the one thing that might date an otherwise timeless piece of theater, especially since there’s no reason why all the characters have to look like they descended from the Vikings. This particularly diverse production, which is directed by Harry Parker and opened at the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth over the weekend, makes for a refreshing change of pace. According to artistic director Tre Garrett, Sondheim is a bit of a departure (and a risk) for the theater. After all, Jubilee’s mission is to produce theater that reflects the African-American experience. But rather than an exercise in forced racial equality, this version of Company feels authentically cast to produce an important, authentic human experience. Most of the company, if you will, did well enough, with a couple stand outs in the ensemble.
The major problem, though, is that Lloyd Harvey can’t hack the leading role. Robert, or Bobby or Bubi or Robby darling, as the other characters call him, is crucial. The vocal trouble was apparent from his first solo in the title number, the goosebump-inducing, choral-esque “Company,” when longer notes went painfully flat (I actually wrote “ouch” on my notepad) and he wasn’t quite glib enough to keep up with Sondheim’s lyrical circles (that’s the no-breathing thing I was talking about earlier), let alone dominate them. Things did not improve as we cut back and forth between Robert interacting with the various couples and then later, his lady friends. Harvey mumbled through libretto, he was off key on more than one occasion, and couldn’t quite infuse his snarky, smirky, surface Bobby (employing Jim Halpert-esque facial reactions) with enough of a believable emotional arc to keep the guy solidly in the “lovable cad” zone. Lovable being the operative word. As a result, “Being Alive,” the usually powerful finale, is unfortunately undercut and under-sung. But in between somewhat shaky bookends, there are a lot of nice moments. The songs that didn’t involve Robert on a major level, such “The Little Things We Do Together,” the duet between Harry (Ben Phillips, a wonderful voice) and Sarah (Sarah Nachelle Davis), were by far the most successful.
And then there are flashes of brilliance. Meg Shideler as Amy, who gets cold feet on her wedding day, steals the show with her perfectly paced (not crazy-Chipmunk fast, but just the right clip) rendition of “Getting Married Today.” Shideler is magnetic, hilarious and charming, with the necessary vocal chops to pull it off and flawless enunciation. Her meltdown was the most viscerally delightful thing I’ve seen on a stage in, well, some time. Sondheim is tough; there is honor, laughter, and happiness here in the attempt. As the characters of Company so often point out, it’s not how a thing ends or begins, it’s just that it happens.