"Company" is a brilliant choice as the first musical to be staged in Writers Theatre's new performing arts complex in Glencoe. The groundbreaking contemporary musical by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright George Furth jolted Broadway back when it debuted in 1970, so the artistic and emotional reverberations of "Company" are still resonant amid this sleek Studio Gang-designed theater.
In director William Brown's finely tuned and frequently thrilling production, an oversize skewed window frame leading to a vertigo-inducing skyscraper backdrop is the dominant scenic visual. It's an apt image from set designer Todd Rosenthal since "Company" centers around an ambivalent New York bachelor forever weighing the pros and cons of making the potentially perilous leap into marriage.
"Company"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (also 3 p.m. June 29 and July 13), 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (no evening shows July 3 or 17); through July 31
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area street parking
Rating: For mature audiences due to sexual situations, drug use, mild profanity and comic physical violence
Who can blame him? In Furth's funny and fragmentary script, Bobby (alternately called Robert or Bob) doesn't always get the best impressions of married life as he bounces back and forth among five sets of close coupled-up friends and his three on-and-off-again girlfriends. There are clashes in temperament and timing, and many of these are movingly rendered in Sondheim's lovely score, which captures both the racing pulse and introspective desolation of many a big city denizen.
Brown's cast repeatedly hits the dramatic and comic points of Furth's script out of the park -- particularly those who have the rhythms of married squabbles down pat. And with the astute coaching of music director Tom Vendafreddo, the ensemble is also so vocally adept that Sondheim's tricky score easily pours off their tongues.
As Bobby, Thom Miller cuts a very handsome figure, and he makes it quite apparent why his friends dote on him and seek him out for advice and good times. But crucially, Miller's Bobby also reveals the necessary emotional cracks behind his good-looking facade as he faces down a "surprise" 35th birthday party.
As the karate-fighting couple of Harry and Sarah, James Earl Jones II and Alexis J. Rogers are a hoot as they keep each other in check over their dieting and drinking issues. Also offering up plenty of laughs are Blair Robertson and Patrick Martin as parents Jenny and David, who share a slightly contentious one-off evening of pot smoking.
Allison Hendrix is impressive as she technically and comically conquers bride-to-be Amy's tongue-twisting patter song "Getting Married Today" (played off the supportive Paul of Bernard Balbot). Another expert lyric exponent is Christine Mild, who brings a cool bohemian vibe to Marta's frenetic song "Another Hundred People," which also encompasses sharp and heartbreaking dramatic scenes involving Bobby's other girlfriends, Kathy (Chelsea Morgan) and air stewardess April (Jess Godwin).
Peter and Susan don't get to be as fully fleshed out in the script, though Gabriel Ruiz and Tiffany Scott respectively make good cases for their two brief scenes together when they reveal shocking relationship news to Bobby.
One questionable coupling in Brown's "Company" is that of Joanne and Larry (Lia Mortensen and Patrick Sarb), especially since their nightclub scene with Bobby incorporates the much-loved inebriated cabaret number "The Ladies Who Lunch" (so memorably introduced by the late Elaine Stritch). As Joanne, Mortenson arguably brings too much rock-and-roll crassness to the part of a stylish New York society matron, even though she delivers the necessary vocal goods to put over the song.
Another quibble with Brown's "Company" is his decision to set it in contemporary New York with omnipresent smartphones. Since there are lyric references to the defunct Life magazine and telephone answering services, I would have rather seen "Company" kept as a 1970 period piece. But Brown's hand in the matter is partially forced, since the 2013 licensed performance version incorporates many of Sondheim and Furth's changes made for the show's updated 1995 revival with voice-mail messages and giving Bobby the once-cut song "Marry Me a Little."
Otherwise, Writers Theatre's "Company" should not only satisfy die-hard Sondheim fanatics, but it has the potential to win over both skeptics and the uninitiated.
And for those either in long relationships or still single, don't be surprised if "Company" occasionally sneaks up and delivers an emotional sucker punch about the choices you've made in your own life. As one of the musical's most poignant songs points out, you're perpetually "Sorry-Grateful" about whatever path you take in life.