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Company

Controversy has swirled Sondheim's "Company" since its 1970 Broadway opening. Pro or anti-marriage? Is protagonist Bobby a heterosexual bachelor or gay? Is his character a passive, undefined literary device? The last of these speculations is satisfyingly answered in Reprise's entertaining, ably acted new version, by director David Lee.

Cast:
Robert - Christopher Sieber Sarah - Sharon Lawrence Harry - Scott Waara Susan - Kathryn Blake Peter - John Scherer Jenny - Anastasia Barzee David - Kevin Chamberlin Amy - Jean Louisa Kelly Paul - Josh Radnor Joanne - Judith Light Larry - Richard Kline Marta - Deborah Gibson Kathy - Cady Huffman April - Amy Pietz

Controversy has swirled around Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” since its 1970 Broadway opening. Is the show pro or anti-marriage? Is protagonist Bobby a confirmed heterosexual bachelor or gay? Above all, is his character a passive, undefined literary device, created solely so his friends can react to him and express their views on marriage? The last of these speculations is satisfyingly answered in Reprise’s entertaining, ably acted new version, as director David Lee (“Frasier,” “Cheers”) has turned Bobby into a stronger character who evolves and expresses such painful passion that he succeeds, for once, in overshadowing the doting but neurotic friends who surround him.

These friends, five couples who adore their bachelor buddy and converge to celebrate his 35th birthday, are intensely eager to find him a mate. They include pot-smoking Jenny (Anastasia Barzee) and husband David (Kevin Chamberlin); fanatically dedicated dieter Sarah (Sharon Lawrence) and alcoholic spouse Harry (Scott Waara); Susan (Kathryn Blake) and sexually conflicted Peter (John Scherer), who plan to divorce and live together without a license; nervous bride Amy (Jean Louisa Kelly) and bewildered groom-to-be Paul (Josh Radnor); and cynical Joanne (Judith Light), who unsuccessfully propositions Bobby, while her husband Larry (Richard Kline) proclaims that his love for her overrides any problems.

Light sets the tone with “The Little Things You Do Together” (“Neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together”). She has angry authority, although she overdoes “The Ladies Who Lunch,” made famous by Elaine Stritch, turning every line into a climax and bombastically belting witticisms that need a dryer, more ironic treatment.

Three of the husbands (Waara, Chamberlin and Kline) effectively delineate their divided viewpoints with “Sorry-Grateful,” and the contrasting liveliness of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Have I Got a Girl for You” benefit from Gerald Sternbach’s tight, note-perfect orchestra and Kay Cole’s buoyant choreography.

As Sarah, Sharon Lawrence combines warm, silky sex appeal with viper-tongued viciousness, tearing down alcoholic spouse Harry in a truthful scene that shows the hostile core existing in so-called stable relationships. One of the evening’s best numbers spotlights marriage-shy Amy, who fragments hysterically before our eyes in her panic-stricken “Getting Married Today” and makes us feel her accumulating terror.

Jean Louisa Kelly rattles off the rapid-fire lyrics with consummate skill and makes the show’s best case for coupledom when Amy recognizes her mistake and races after her rejected husband .

An additional scene centered on homosexuality, added in a 1996 London production and retained here, feels uncertain and arbitrary. When Bobby’s friend Peter (Scherer) asks if he has ever had a gay experience, Bobby says yes, then coyly pretends Peter is joking about the idea of having a relationship.

The interesting implications of this exchange are never mentioned again and only obscure, rather than illuminate, Bobby’s sexual nature. Despite this, Scherer’s magnetic portrayal makes us eager to know more about him and leaves a sense of frustration at ignored dramatic possibilities. Sieber is at his best on the show-stopping “Side by Side by Side.” His aggressive sexuality and the smooth-talking lies he uses to entice April (an assured, sparkling Amy Pietz) into bed contrast amusingly with everyone’s perception of him as the lost, pathetic loner described in “Poor Baby.” The scene between Bobby and April, though protracted, is endearing due to the actors’ insightful portrayals. Other displays of powerful talent are contributed by Cady Huffman and Deborah Gibson.

The final song, “Being Alive,” was derided by Sondheim as a “small moment” and a weak alternative to another song he wrote that was removed by Hal Prince (“Happily Ever After — in Hell”). “Being Alive,” in Lee’s production, is the play’s major achievement, when Sieber finds inner strength, sings at full throttle and rushes forward to risk the confusion, hurt and ecstasy of a permanent relationship.

Company

UCLA Freud Playhouse; 583 seats; $65 top

Production: A Reprise! production of a musical in two acts by George Furth. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by David Lee.

Crew: Sets, Bradley Kaye; costumes, Randy Gardell; lighting, Tom Ruzika; sound, Philip G. Allen; choreography, Kay Cole; music direction, Gerald Sternbach. Opened and reviewed May 19, 2004; runs through June 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: Robert - Christopher Sieber Sarah - Sharon Lawrence Harry - Scott Waara Susan - Kathryn Blake Peter - John Scherer Jenny - Anastasia Barzee David - Kevin Chamberlin Amy - Jean Louisa Kelly Paul - Josh Radnor Joanne - Judith Light Larry - Richard Kline Marta - Deborah Gibson Kathy - Cady Huffman April - Amy Pietz

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