Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mixed Company from Moonbox

The full cast of Company.

Today's sad news is that likable Moonbox Productions is still in something of a sophomore slump. Early on, the company wowed the local scene with hits like Floyd Collins and Of Mice and Men, but of late it seems the reach of their projects has reliably exceeded their grasp.

Part of the problem is that the troupe has been drawn to challenging texts that demand a cool sense of style and a calculated edge - but the company's very ethos  is earnest, straightforward, and sincere. Which was perfect for Of Mice and Men, yes, but proves highly uncongenial to Company, the acid Sondheim classic that kicked off the master's grand decade of achievement (Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd followed in short order), and which will continue to kick up its heels at the BCA through this weekend.

But before the review proper - a word of caution. I've seen many Companies. One or two of them near-great. So I'm speaking as a connoisseur. But even weaker versions of this show, I admit, usually convey something of the greatness of the material.  And that comes through at Moonbox, too.  So if you've never seen Company, by all means go. This is one of the greatest musicals ever written - it reminds you of what people used to be able to do in a musical. That's largely thanks to Sondheim's tunes, true, which have never gone out of style - even if George Furth's swinging-60's book for a time seemed dated. But oddly, that period is now far enough away from us that we no longer feel as if Company were meant to map to contemporary mores; at 44 years of age, it's edging toward "classic" territory. And thus Furth's cutting comments on coupledom, which are often quite insightful (and which received a few nips and tucks in the 90's), now look more classic, too.  To be honest, these days the show hardly feels dated at all (indeed, given the recent sea change in the acceptance of gay marriage, and the various sexual subtexts in the script, it has probably never been more relevant). So any chance to make contact with Company is worthwhile - particularly for younger theatergoers. Because after seeing Sondheim in his prime, it's hard to keep pretending about the likes of The Book of Mormon.

Okay, that's the good news about Company. The bad news is - well, almost all the male performances in this version. The women generally impress (and some even soar). But the men - well, they seem like very nice guys, but from Dave Carney's lead performance on down, they're all over their heads to some degree. Carney himself is all but underwater; he's an appealing presence, but makes Sondheim and Furth's iconic Bobby, the perennial bachelor who won't or can't commit to marriage (or even serial monogamy) despite the exhortations of all his married friends, less a sphinx than a blank. To be fair, he hasn't been done many favors by director Allison Olivia Choat, who gets the beats and details of every scene about right, but doesn't seem to understand that at first we're supposed to nod our heads in agreement with Bobby's smart cynicism toward the sacred vows of matrimony, and only gradually change our minds about them (and him).

But as there's little sense of satire to the connubial scene at Moonbox, Bobby looks like an emotional cripple from square one. And the whole heady atmosphere of liberation that Sondheim and Furth intend to conjure has somehow gone missing, too. There's very little sex in the air - even though Bobby is attractive enough that one of his straight-acting-and-appearing friends makes a pass at him - and not much edge to the furtive experiments with drugs, either. Even Sondheim's paean to the surging anonymity of the city, "Another Hundred People," lacks the slightly-spooky undertow it should have.

Still, the instrumental score is well-served by the onstage band (even if they're therefore too loud and almost too "present"), and the female half of the cast offers several performances to savor. Indeed, all the women in the show hold their own, although some do a good deal more. Local light Leigh Barrett makes a striking Joanne, for instance - she's unafraid to make the show's other iconic character quite cold and unlovable, yet still brings down the house with an almost harrowing rendition of one of Sondheim's most brilliant lyrics, "The Ladies Who Lunch." Only a step behind was the vibrant Shonna Cirone, who dicted the notorious patter song "Getting Married Today" (often taken at an incomprehensible clip) with more clarity than I've ever heard before - for the first time, I caught every syllable. Another droll turn came from Katie Clark, who brought a touch of poignant isolation to the role of Bobby's disposable stewardess-girlfriend, while Teresa Winner Blume gave his most uptight married friend a gentle knowingness, and Lisa Dempsey offered a winningly open-hearted turn as the girl Bobby almost really loved.  In the end, even if the overall arc of the show wasn't quite there, these performances proved very good company indeed.

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