Sondheim in good 'Company' at Signature Theatre

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Entertainment,Theater,Jolene Munch

Marriage is a funny thing. But in "Company," Stephen Sondheim's musical ode to all things matrimonial, it can be downright absurd. And in Eric Schaeffer's new production at Signature Theatre, it also seems more than a little profound.

Out of the five couples who coo and cajole our genial bachelor Bobby into considering or dismissing marriage as a lifelong proposition onstage, Schaeffer has cast three of these duos with pairs of local actors who are also married offstage. This lends an unconventional flavor to the connubial "bliss" between the likes of Sarah and Harry, Jenny and David, and Joanne and Larry. What bubbles under the surface here is a subtle sense of symmetry, that these are real friends portraying real people in real relationships.

And that's just what Sondheim serves up, in between genuinely funny scenes scribed by George Furth -- a score crowded with numbers that accurately depict the social pressures of life in tandem against the loneliness experienced at a permanent table for one. Sure, his married friends drive him crazy, but they only want what's best for their single friend ... right? Problem is, how can anyone know if they're ready for the kind of commitment that marriage demands?

Onstage
'Company'
» Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington
» When: Through June 30
» Info: $40 to $91; 703-573-7328; signature-theatre.org

It's a bittersweet conundrum examined through song, and here Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are treated to superb music direction from Jon Kalbfleisch. Familiar tunes such as "Side by Side by Side" and "Being Alive" are passionately delivered by a cast stacked with strong vocal talent and fun choreography by Matthew Gardiner.

Daniel Conway's ultra-modern set features five flat-panel screens that display Rocco DiSanti's video designs -- which help establish time and place -- and images that are used to varying degrees of effect. Schaeffer's ensemble is outfitted in smart monochromatic fashions by Frank Labovitz, the same costumer who gave us such astonishing quick-change gowns in Signature's "Dreamgirls."

Among a cast that consistently interprets Sondheim's lyrics with originality and spunk, Matthew Scott is a youthful Bobby as he celebrates his 35th birthday with a revelatory rendition of his solo finale that is both remarkably theatrical and moving. The ensemble couples -- most of whom are familiar faces to the Signature audience -- include the comedic stylings of Tracy Lynn Olivera and Bobby Smith, and husband and wife Erin Driscoll and James Gardiner give real levity to their sweet Jenny and David.

Sherri L. Edelen lends a surprisingly stern musicality to "The Ladies Who Lunch" -- her Joanne is equal parts posh and pip, avoiding any of the sour notes famously rendered by Elaine Stritch's boozy broad. And while Madeline Botteri is the quintessential April, all long vowels and Ohioan naivete, Carolyn Cole delivers an interesting, if slightly oversung, "Another Hundred People." But the evening's inarguable showstopper comes from Erin Weaver's anxious Amy, barely breathing as she manically pleads with her wedding guests and groom in the hypersyncopated "Getting Married Today."

With such well-defined characterizations and outstanding directorial choices, Schaeffer's pristine production makes this a memorable "Company" worth keeping.

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Jolene Munch

The Washington Examiner