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Company: A happy hit for Theatre 20 to build on

Production stills for Company.

Theatre 20

3 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Gary Griffin
Dan Chameroy
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
George Furth
Berkeley Street Theatre

Theatre 20's revival of Company, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1970 musical about modern marriage, easily justifies its existence in four minutes flat.

Those are the sharp 240 seconds or so that Louise Pitre's Joanne takes to sing her perfect, pitiless rendition of Ladies Who Lunch - the show's famous skewering of rich and unemployed women "off to a gym, then to a fitting, claiming they're fat; and looking grim, 'cause they've been sitting, choosing a hat."

Without ever leaving her seat or putting down her vodka stinger, Pitre mixes together the right parts sour and sass, acid and anger in this toxic cocktail of a tune as the thrice-married Joanne gradually realizes she is describing herself.

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Company is a musical divided into episodes, a series of scenes and songs that dissect marriage as they show us glimpses of the life of Bobby (Dan Chameroy), a 35-year-old singleton surrounded by coupled friends who are constantly trying to set him up (and knock him down). Chicago director Gary Griffin's production is an unfocused and at times unclear one, but it does provide an opportunity for company members of the star-filled Theatre 20 ensemble like Tony nominee Pitre to shine in their own one-song shows.

First to knock it out of the park in the acting department are Brent Carver and Nora McLellan as an alcoholic and chocoholic who voyeuristically make Bobby drink and eat on their behalves. And Carver's soulful opening verse of Sorry-Grateful - confessing his character's mixed feelings about marriage - is the first sublime musical moment of the production, with the Tony winner fully capitalizing on the intimate quarters of the Berkeley Street Theatre to connect, intimately, with his contagiously weepy eyes.

Carly Street, star of Canadian Stage's recent Venus in Fur, provides the musical comic high not long after as Amy, whose wedding-day cold feet manifest themselves in a rapid patter song about (not) Getting Married Today. Meanwhile, Nia Vardalos, of My Big, Fat Greek Wedding fame, is very funny as the sweet and square Jenny - and, more surprisingly, pulls out a lovely singing voice to match.

Among the lesser-known cast members, three younger actresses each get a chance to showcase their skills as Bobby's gaggle of girlfriends. Marisa McIntyre is just the right angle of off-kilter as a flighty flight attendant named April - and has sizzling chemistry with Chameroy. Cleopatra Williams unleashes a crisp rendition of another no-bar-to-breathe song called Another Hundred People, all the more impressive since she was a last-minute replacement for chanteuse Sarah Slean. And Lindsey Frazier, as the New England WASP who gets away from indecisive Bobby, gets to grab attention in a daring dance number atop musical director Scott Christian's grand piano; Marc Kimelman's choreography here is a little Flashdance, but this is a smart stand-in for the usual stifled on-stage sex.

Company is a show ahead of its time not just in its formless form, but in theme, centring as it does around the centre-less character of Bobby - a creature born of mass urbanization and the sexual revolution who has only multiplied since the 1970s. Much attention is paid to single women in the city faced with the conflict between endless romantic options and a ticking biological clock, but less to the plight of the thirtysomething man who, wombless, has become even more unmoored from traditional life trajectory and is faced with the tyranny of choice when, in Marta's words, "another 100 people just got off of the train". Usually, characters like Bobby are just cads or comic relief - but Sondheim and Furth give Bobby's sexual-existential loneliness its dramatic due - and this forty years before Tinder.

At first, Chameroy delivers a Bobby who is full of ageing bravado; more of an obvious player, and only intermittently earnest, he's not immediately endearing and doesn't quite fit into the sophisticated, New York setting. When Bobby gets his solos, Chameroy sings them with big notes, hands out, palms open as if he's the subtext-free romantic hero out of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (So nice, by the way, to hear a musical acoustically; when you can actually hear it, that is - the Berkeley space is a sound sucker.)

Chameroy finds more depth to Bobby in the second half - thanks, in part, to a one-night stand with McIntyre that make him seem more human. And his rendition of the show's closing song, Being Alive, is appropriately stirring.

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You can blame part of the shortcomings of Chameroy's performance on an uncertain concept for this bare-bones production by Griffin. At the start, Bobby wanders around with a digital camera, snapping pictures of his married friends and seemingly situating this production in the present. But as show progresses, we're clearly back in the 1970s with the references to busy signals and answering services and dated sexual and racial politics. (It's a pity that twenty years after the first black Bobby, played by Adrian Lester in the UK, Theatre 20's production features an all-white cast.)

Still, Theatre 20, which has floundered since it was founded with much fanfare a few years ago, has a happy hit thanks to a short run in a small space. And now there is something to build on, should they choose to continue past Company.

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