Company (Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Performing Arts)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
July 28 – August 4
“Company” begins with New Yorker Robert readying himself to spend his 35th birthday celebration in the company of his mostly married friends. The musical takes place in his head at the moment he’s about to unlock the door to his apartment for the surprise of his party as he mind is kaleidoscoped with memories of past conversations with his friends and previous dating experiences.
The 1970s concept musical, based on 11 one-act plays by George Furth tells its story through a series of vignettes (with birthday party scene resets often in-between) during which Bobby gets a glimpse into the reality behind his friends’ romances in realisation of the loneliness that his bachelorhood is masking behind his ‘drive a person crazy’ demeanour (as he is unflatteringly portrayed in song by three of his girlfriends).
Thde musical masterpiece about modern marriage and its discontents is the work of ground-breaking American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim so it is a show that is all about music. Its polite soundtrack is full of eclectic songs, including classics like the fierce ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, in replacement of any real plot. Revolutionary at the time as one of Broadway’s first non-linear musicals, it earned a record-setting 14 Tony nominations and won six Tony Awards, and, in the hands of Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Performing Arts cast and creatives, it is easy to appreciate why.
Brilliant orchestrations (Musical Director Heidi Loveland) ensure that the soundtrack’s easy-listening melodies and crafted refrains remain with you in hum after its experience. The ensemble’s titular opening number is not only accomplished, but establishes a compelling musical charm thanks to the strong vocals of members such as Jarrod Moore and Patrick Connolly. As the story’s protagonist, Carlo Boumouglbay’s (in a role shared with Jerrod Smith) initial vocals seem to be timidly hidden under the orchestral accompaniment, however, his Act One closing wish for someone to ‘Marry Me a Little’ is deeply emotional and his voice belts out an urgent and gripping rendition of Act Two’s ‘Being Alive’ long for intimacy and someone with whom to share his life.
This “Company” is a polished production, featuring a number of stand-out performances, particular from its ladies. Chenaya Aston is memorable as Robert’s naïve, self-described dumb, flight-attendant girlfriend, conveying the perfect use of pause and extended beat for comic effect. And Grace Royle brings a more relatable humour to the role of sweet but self-confessed square Jenny, who after loosening up while stoned with Bobby and her husband David (Lachlan Greenland) remains happy with her ‘marriage and kids’ life choices. However, as is often the case with “Company”, Kyra Thompson steals the show with her marriage-phobic portrayal of the neurotic Amy, whose ‘Getting Married Today’ tour-de-force is one of Sondheim’s most arduous songs. Not only is her frenetic delivery of the demanding patter song’s mile-a-minute manic meltdown lyrics magnificent in its list of panicked reasons why she is not getting married to Paul today as planned, but her facial expressions and body language in anticipatory overwhelm make her whole performance utterly hilarious. Indeed, under Jacqui Somerville’s direction, the show’s entire entertainment value is enhanced by considered pacing, including the prudent use of pauses.
Despite its age, “Company” is still a very funny show in songs like the ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, in which the oldest and most cynical of Robert’s friends, the multiple-divorcee Joanne (Hannah Bennett) sarcastically tells the audience about the things that make a marriage work, and also in its drama. Its second scene, for example, in which competitive couple Harry (Alex Watson) and Sarah (Julia Pendrith) strike an interesting balance between both over-the-top and passive aggressive, contains surprising physical comedy and clever verbal quips as they literally face-off against each other in culmination of their relentless niggling about each other’s weaknesses.
Notwithstanding its lack of a traditional narrative, Act One especially flies by. And while Act Two’s pace slows somewhat, it does open with the sensational number ‘Side By Side By Side’, followed by the up-tempo ‘What We Do With Out You?’ which, although out-of-place amongst the show’s other scenes, brings a bit of Bob Fossey type Broadway to the wider-than-usual Visy Theatre stage. With razzle-dazzle sensibility, the on-point chorus line choreography in its mid-number dance break is an absolute treat, especially given the rarity of its experience in such an intimate environment.
There’s no doubt that Sondheim is a genius, and “Company” is a testament to this. The score is stellar and the songs are at once witty and wonderfully beautiful. Their complex lyrics stand the test of time, meaning that although Sondheim wrote the music so early in his career, now nearly 50 years ago, it holds up well today, so that the show only needs the subtlest of updates (such as the appearance of mobile phones in a nightclub scene). And the attention to detail is another of this production’s merits. Costumes work well to establish the diversity of characters and lighting is effective in its perceived simplicity, such as when Robert is captured in multiple spotlights in his moment of ‘Being Alive’ realisation. The conceptual musical study of contemporary relationships may no longer be innovative, but is certainly still sophisticated and very enjoyable, especially when realised by a group of cast and creatives as good as this.