“Company” is one of those little-seen masterpieces of the American musical theater — a rarely revived show whose reputation rests largely on its original cast album. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera’s sharp new production gives us a chance to hear Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score in its original context — and to appreciate just how theatrically innovative this show is.
Here is a musical that eschews a strong storyline in favor of a series of vignettes. Here is a musical with a virtually passive central character, whose struggle is almost entirely internal. Here is a musical in which the songs tend to occur outside the framework of the drama, and generally comment on the action rather than move it forward.
Audiences were apparently not ready for this in 1970, when the show was only a moderate success on Broadway. But as the appropriately enthusiastic Long Beach crowd proved Saturday night, today’s audiences accept the now-familiar conventions without hesitation.
What’s more, unlike so much art from that period, “Company” barely seems dated. Its themes — fear of loneliness, fear of settling for a less-than-satisfying relationship, and the more amorphous fear that results from living in a dehumanizing urban environment — remain relevant.
Future revivals are clearly in order. But we’ll be fortunate if they reach the level of the Long Beach production, which features a first-rate ensemble cast directed by Glenn Casale. These superb singing actors create vivid characters, handle the comedy with ease and provide impassioned renditions of great songs.
Carol Burnett is the best-known member of the cast, and she is arguably also the best; her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” stunningly conveys that song’s mix of jumbled, unpleasant emotions. It’s a measure of the production’s high quality that she doesn’t stick out: Jennifer Allen’s “Another Hundred People” and Veanne Cox’s “Getting Married Today” are on an equally high-quality level.
The only disappointment is Patrick Cassidy, who plays the central role of Bobby — the 35-year-old bachelor who observes the quirky behavior of his married friends and wonders whether he is truly ready to commit to another person.
As noted, his is a tricky role; Bobby is virtually always on stage, yet he basically serves as a straight man. Nevertheless, one would like more of an emotional connection between Cassidy and the audience; he seldom seems open and vulnerable, even during his big number, “Being Alive.”
Bradley Kaye’s set is, appropriately, dominated by sharp angles. Linda Goodrich’s choreography is consistently clever. Although the annoying sound system sometimes upsets the balances between singers and orchestra, conductor John McDaniel navigates the often tricky music with a sure hand.