San Diego Theater Preview: COMPANY (Cygnet Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on July 13, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


“It’s a revue, but not a revue,” Stephen Sondheim said about Company when he was interviewed at Segerstrom last year. This surprised me because the groundbreaking 1970 musical which opens at Cygnet Theatre this weekend is a concept musical, meaning that the themes of a show (in this case, marriage and commitment) are woven throughout the play, but do not support a plot. Hair (1968) may have set the standard, but Company paved the way for the most successful concept musical of all Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “Company” by Cygnet Theatre at Old Town Theatre in San Diegotime: A Chorus Line (1975), which, not without coincidence, was created by Michael Bennett, the choreographer of Company.

There are three other categories of musical theater. One is the musical comedy, in which songs are plopped down at will but do not advance the narrative, such as Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930) and modern jukebox musicals. Another is the integrated musical, in which song, character, and dance blend to tell a story – the first being Oklahoma! in 1943. Sondheim speaks of the fourth category, a revue, which is a musical show consisting of skits, songs, and dances, often satirizing current events, trends, and personalities (think the Ziegfeld Follies). Perhaps that is why the composer/lyricist refers to his baby as such, because these elements are contained in Company. (Maltby and Shire’s Closer Than Ever (1989) eschewed skits and dances for only self-contained songs, but it is easily classified as a revue.)

Yet Company is simply not a revue because, according to critic Steven Suskin, it broke all the rules of musical dramaturgy, forging a new type of musical (now known as a concept musical, a term which was devised by Martin Gottfried in his New York Times review of Sondheim’s next show in 1971, Follies). Gone – or should we say altered? – were plot, narrative, subplots, scenes and scene changes, and the usual method of storytelling. Now, many things were happening at once, multiple Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “Company” by Cygnet Theatre at Old Town Theatre in San Diegocharacters in several locations in different locales crowding the stage simultaneously.

The show was a hit, running for 706 performances, and was nominated for a record-setting fourteen Tony Awards, winning six. Still, there were some mixed reviews, mostly because George Furth’s freestyle libretto of sketch-like fragments did not match the quality, tang, sophistication, and intelligent wit of his collaborator. (I also maintain that Furth’s unnecessarily scathing and cynical book for Merrily We Roll Along is the reason the 1981 musical is so difficult to produce well.) Ultimately, Company was only one of two shows that were financially successful for the team of Sondheim and director Hal Prince – the other monetary success of their six collaborations was A Little Night Music (1973). Surprisingly, Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim’s artistic apotheosis, scared away tourists and bled its producers dry.

Sondheim stated in the PBS special Broadway: the American Musical that, in 1970, Broadway theater had been supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. Those same people who really wanted to escape that Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “Company” by Cygnet Theatre at Old Town Theatre in San Diegoworld when they went to the theatre would have it thrust right back in their faces when they attended Company. The upper-middle-class people that Sondheim references are one engaged couple and four married New York couples, all born from an unproduced Furth evening of eleven unconnected one-acts written for Kim Stanley. Prince’s idea was to develop a central character, their best friend Robert (played at Cygnet by Andrew Wells Ryder), a commitment-phobic single man who is used as a tool to examine these marriages. Also added were three girlfriends, April (Katie Whalley), Marta (Ashlee Mayer) and Kathy (Mary Joe Duggan), who sing the delightful “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” The vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, are linked by a party thrown for Bobby’s 35th birthday. “This show might be cynical and jaded at times,” says director Sean Murray. “But ultimately, it’s about the fact that people matter in your life.”

Furth’s cheap dialogue may have become dated, but many directors have gotten around that with clever staging (John Doyle had his actors playing instruments). Sondheim’s indelible score refuses to fade, however, remaining bright, vibrant, clever, funny, sardonic and intelligent. Notable and enduring songs include “The Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “Company” by Cygnet Theatre at Old Town Theatre in San DiegoLadies Who Lunch,” “Sorry/Grateful,” “I’m Not Getting Married,” “Another Hundred People” and “Being Alive.”

Cygnet has tackled three other works from Sondheim’s oeuvre – A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Assassins – with great success. Company will be choreographed by David Brannen, with music direction by Patrick Marion. The cast includes many Cygnet veterans – as well as several newcomers – in the roles of Sarah (Melissa Fernandes), Harry (Andrew Oswald), Susan (Wendy Waddell), Peter (Kurt Norby), Jenny (Athena Espinoza), David (Andy Collins), Amy (Eileen Bowman), Paul (Matthew Naegel), Joanne (Linda Libby) and Larry (David Kirk Grant).

photos by Daren Scott

Cygnet Theatre
Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Wed/Thurs @ 7:30 pm, Fri @ 8pm, Sat @ 3pm and 8pm, and Sun at 2pm @ 7pm
scheduled to end on August 25, 2013
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit

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