Revisions and updatings from the recent Broadway and London revivals of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company” have been incorporated into what is now the current authorized performing version of the 1970 musical, but it’s still very much a period artifact reflecting the shallow chic of certain New Yorkers of its time, pot smoking, karate lessons and all. That, at least, is how “Company” plays in the Huntington Theater Company’s excellent production, the first professional airing of the new authorized version and one that’s blessed with a terrific cast led by Davis Gaines’ personable, piercingly sung Bobby and Karen Mason’s heady Joanne.
The most controversial revision is from the 1996 London production in which married character Peter (a casually assured John Schiappa) raises the possibility of a homosexual experience with the show’s central bachelor character, Bobby. Bobby chooses to avoid the issue by deciding, with a laugh, that Peter is having him on. The possibility that Bobby is gay has been aired ever since “Company” hit the boards, and an earlier scene in this production has him hugging Peter in a somewhat suggestive way. But the rest of the show more strongly suggests that Bobby is simply a guy who is scared of commitment, or, as Joanne says of him, a Kraft-Ebbing case history looking at life from the outside as he jumps into bed with a succession of young women.
Anyway, the new scene is no big deal. Just another example of the strange behavior of Bobby’s married friends to which he can react with a puzzled “wow.” Author Furth has written it with sly ambiguity.
Other changes from the 1970 original include the elimination of the dance number “Tick Tock,” the use of the song “Marry Me a Little,” and the cutting of four cast members, the female quartet known as the Vocal Minority. There are now 14 rather than 18 performers in the cast.
Over the years there have been at least four different versions of “Company.” This may or may not be the last. The original “Company” was given a sleek, cool, even chilly air by Boris Aronson’s high-tech chrome setting. The Huntington’s designer, Loren Sherman, has gone for an altogether different look, creating a realistic Manhattan Soho loft apartment in an old building. The view outside its windows is mostly of ancient rooftop water tanks. This much cozier, homier-looking set, along with a cast that looks less glossy and glamorous than the Broadway original, gives the characters a mite more humanity than they had originally. Something may be lost in the lack of surface slickness, but something is also gained, even if we do end up not really knowing any of the characters very well, one of the show’s basic flaws (assuming, of course, there is much to know).
Director Larry Carpenter and his cast have done everything in their power to bring the musical to vivid life, starting with Gaines’ Bobby. His performance climaxes in the musical’s pivotal scene, which is set up magnificently by Mason’s guillotine-sharp, martini-dry interpretation of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Gaines manages to top “Lunch” with his wail of anguish at his inability to commit, to live, which leads into his powerful epiphany “Being Alive.”
The entire cast works beautifully together, never more so than in the big production number “Side by Side by Side.” Here choreographer Daniel Pelzig has taken his lead from original choreographer Michael Bennett’s soft-shoe vaudeville conception.
Elsewhere Pelzig has choreographed with a neatly understated feeling for songs and characters, deliciously so in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” as performed with perky pizazz by Marie Danvers, Angela Lockett and Kim Lindsay. Lockett also makes the most of “Another Hundred People,” while Danvers is enchantingly dizzy as the “dumb” air hostess April. Tia Speros is splendidly deft as the young woman suddenly terrified of getting married, and Dann Fink as her bewildered Jewish groom sparkles ingratiatingly behind his glasses.
Susan Cella and Andy Umberger indulge in their karate battle with frightening physicality, while Maureen Silliman and William Parry carry off their pot-smoking scene with actual sensitivity. Walter Charles stands up well against Mason’s dominating Joanne. And Teri Bibb helps make sense of the Peter-Susan relationship, which seems stronger after their divorce than before.
If the nine-piece pit band is more supportive than aggressive, that is partly in the nature of the score, conductor F. Wade Russo playing his supporting role with real skill.
Huge photographs of Bobby’s married friends and single girlfriends lend focal points to the various scenes, with changes of locale signaled by such simple means as a new light fixture. The production takes place in no particular year, though Pelzig has spoken about it being “contemporary.” Toni-Leslie James has cleverly designed costumes that can be seen as late-’90s with a retro leaning toward 1970.
There will always be theatergoers who resist the chilly charms of “Company,” but the Huntington certainly deserves the extended success it is having with this production.