Oeuvre Magazine Reviews “Company”

Renegade’s “Company” Shines with Truth, Vocals, and Verve at Teatro Zuccone

Review by DENNIS KEMPTON

Bernadette Peters said, “Stephen Sondheim told me that Oscar Hammerstein believed everything that he wrote.  So there’s great truth in the songs and that’s what was so wonderful to find.”  Sondheim’s respect for Hammerstein’s truth-writing in his lyrics seems to mirror the famed composer’s own repertoire, as he has penned some of the most elegant scores and lyrics in the history of musicals.  No less is true of his 1970 effort, Company.

Company was one of the first musicals to deal with adult themes and relationships.  Written about upper-middle class couples and people, it was not lost on Sondheim that he was presenting, on stage, the problems that group have right in front of them, as they were the biggest supporters of theater, itself.  Company opened on Broadway late April 1970 to much success, even though, during its initial “out-of-town tryouts” opening in Boston, Variety decided that the lyrics were “undistinguished.”  The production went on to receive an astounding 14 Tony nominations, winning six, including Best Musical, Best Lyrics, and Best Original Score.  It has been revived numerous times, including a stunningly stripped down 2006 production where the actors played their own instruments on stage.

With this laudable provenance, it’s intimidating to think of a community theater company putting on the show.  For a black box theater, it could seem like trying to pour an entire magnum of champagne into a thimble without missing a drop.   And that is exactly what Renegade Theater Company did with Sondheim’s musical about couples and relationships Thursday when it opened at Teatro Zuccone.

The story is about relationships:  successful, but quirky–an excruciating balancing act between maintaining individuality and merging together; a longing for companionship while yearning for unbridled freedom.  Bobby, the principal character, is turning 35 and he’s unmarried.  Yet, the architecture of his life is built around five couples who take care of his needs to an extent.  Unable or unwilling to commit to any woman, Bobby approaches his birthday in reflection of his relationships with the couples orbiting his world and with the young women he seems never to completely connect with, for whatever reasons he has.

In Renegade Theater Company’s production, Adam Sippola is cast in the lead role.  Sippola is no stranger to the Sondheim experience, having played the title role in a very successful local production of the revival structure of Sweeney Todd directed by Sheryl Jensen a few years ago at the Play Ground.  Sondheim’s not easy.  His melodies and lyrics are an ebb and flow–a puzzle of emotion and notes that requires subtlety one moment and a steep climb to powerful peaks the next.  Throughout, Sippola slides inside the lives of the five couples presented on stage with almost whispery familiarity and quietude.  His characterization is not the single bon vivant crashing into nights of television watching and quibbling with his married friends.  There is an abiding respect for their relationships and a genuine feeling, reflected from the stage, of connection with the fabric of their lives.

But, before all that…the opening of the show is strong.  That’s the important thing.  The harmonies are tight and feature some of the best vocalizing heard on local stages.

The casting of the couples is buoyed by having real-life couple Katy Helbacka and Andy Bennett lead off as Sarah and Harry.  Their timing and knowledge of each other’s ability makes the top of the show pop with precision and verve.  Both are wonderful comedic actors and sometimes just seeing Helbacka on stage getting ready to do something with a hint of mischief in her eyes is enough to make one lose it and start giggling.  Add funnyman Bennett, who can demonstrate a significantly vulnerable soft side in his acting that is not only dramatically appealing, but a great foil for his wife, and the chemistry and acting become a highlight of the show, actually.  The remaining couples are good even though the writing, in my view, doesn’t delve too deeply into their relationships (with the possible exception of Joanne and Larry, played by Carolyn LePine and Greg J. Anderson–but more on them later) to give you any reason to root for them or become endeared to them the way you do with Sarah and Harry.   As Bobby flows in and out of their lives, we see the pushing and pulling dynamics of married life.  There’s not much more to say about Sippola’s vocal power other than that is is, for lack of a better word:  impressive.  The timbre of his voice and his ability to get inside and curl around Sondheim’s difficult repertoire with ease and precision is the show’s valuable asset, enhanced, of course, by the talented ensemble that polishes the production to a gloss.  Sippola’s crowning moment on stage comes in the first act with “Marry Me A Little”–a song that gets under the skin unexpectedly, driven home with the soaring finale Sippola belts from the stage to close the first act.

The actors do a commendable job of balancing comedy and relationship seriousness without losing too much of either although they err on the side of humor and that’s just fine.  Susan and Peter (Kate Zehr and Bret Amundson) are splitting up and Bobby is the first to know although the reasons are never fully articulated but later on in the second act, maybe an explanation finally breaks through.  Amundson and Zehr present a striking couple on stage, perhaps the closest representation of New York City’s upper middle class.

But, where we first begin to see some depth and something outside the immediate realm of comedy, in terms of acting, in these relationships is between Bobby, Jenny, and David.  Jenny and David are played by Jennifer Graupman and Bryan Burns, who turn in a remarkable performance leading into “Sorry-Grateful,” when Bobby and David are left alone and Bobby asks if David ever is sorry he got married.  Burns, Bennett, and Anderson harmonize in a woeful yet tenderly heart-warming confession about the painful joys of married life.  Each actor inhabits the song and that makes the emotional punch that much more than the lyrics ever can be on their own.

The couples in the story aren’t the only women and men involved in Bobby’s life.  Sarah Deiner (Kathy), Abbey Hegerfeld (Marta), and Amber Burns (April) are the unfinished parts of Bobby’s single life and they get some dazzling footwork on stage that make their roles not only interludes in the main story, but entertaining vignettes all their own.  Director Evan Kelly plays double duty as choreographer and the women play the conscience of Bobby’s “other” life with light touches dipping into real emotion just enough to give flavor.  Abby Hegerfeld gets the stage in “Another Hundred People” demonstrating a delightfully capable and full-throated rendition of the song, and Amber Burns turns in a touching performance with Sippola of “Barcelona” that is not to be missed.

Jenna Kelly (Amy) sings a masterful performance of one of the show’s tongue-twisting tour de force numbers, “Getting Married Today” with flair, breaking down the wall between audience and stage to add an extra punch to an already provocative lyric.  She is accompanied by the wonderfully operatic singing of castmate Jennifer Graupman. Not only does Kelly manage to accomplish this remarkable feat, but moments later demonstrates some of the best acting of the show, turning down her fiance Paul’s marriage proposal (the day of the wedding) with a tone that is at once painful in its realism and relieving in its cathartic undertone.  The other stand out performance in the show is Carolyn LePine’s biting yet somehow, inexplicably hopeful rendering of “The Ladies Who Lunch” where, swinging a cocktail glass and dripping with self-loathing sarcasm, LePine’s Joanne, manages to occupy an entire stage just from her pocket stage right with a bold and powerful voice.  As far as the acting, LePine’s Joanne screws her wit and resentfulness at aging and marriage deep into the construction of the show’s “couple” dynamic, lending considerable contrast to the acting around her.  Joanne is not a joiner, nor is she satisfied, and LePine manages to blend in to the bubbly and the quirky acting around her in stride.

The sound of the show is spot on.  New mics and a sound system that is tailor made for the black box space of Teatro Zuccone gives the music the respect it deserves.  The lighting design by Colleen Dunleap is adequate at creating mood, but there are times when the actors are not in their light or cues seem to come up too slowly and that can be distracting when it comes to the performances they’re delivering on stage.  The only real flaw in the production is the set design.  An attempt at a New York skyline is the only background we get from stage right and left.  The rest is the black drape on stage and what appears to be a white semi-transparent batting of some sort.  Even though the black box demands a certain spartan design, I do think the show deserves more.  Thankfully, the performances on stage are so well-done that it isn’t dramatically distracting.

With Company, Renegade Theater Company proves, again, that it has yet to bite off more than it could chew.  Since rebranding itself and choosing some of the most provocative and relevant black box theatre to put on the stage at Teatro Zuccone, the company shows again, with this production, that their selections are appropriate for the talent on stage, vocally and dramatically–showing the best of what we’ve got here in town and giving audiences the opportunity to experience timeless gems like Sondheim’s Company with artistic integrity.  Genuinely well-produced shows continue to enhance Renegade’s identity, in this review’s opinion, of producing some of the finest musicals on the local stage.

COMPANY.  Book by George Furth.  Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Directed by Evan Kelly for Renegade Theater Company at Teatro Zuccone.  WITH Adam Sippola, Katy Helbacka, Andy Bennett, Kate Zehr, Bret Amundson, Jennifer Graupman, Bryan Burns, Jenna Kelly, Mike Pederson, Carolyn LePine, Greg J. Anderson, Abbey Hegerfeld, Sarah Diener, and Amber Burns.  The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays through September 1 at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth.  Curtain: 8 p.m. This review is based on the August 16 opening night performance.

“Company” review from the Duluth News-Tribune

By Lawrence Bernabo, published 8/17/12

At a time when the debate over same-sex marriage has made the state of matrimony a front burner political issue, Renegade’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at Teatro Zuccone turns a critical and caustic eye on the institution. This musical is not a nostalgic look at the halcyon marriages of yesteryear, but an intellectual and emotional vivisection of marriages of discontent. With uniformly solid singing and impeccable comic timing, “Company” makes for an extremely enjoyable evening of theatre.

Played by Adam Sippola, Robert (a.k.a. “Bobby baby”) is a bachelor supposed to be celebrating his 35th birthday with his closet friends, five married couples. One character tells Robert: “You always make me feel like I got the next line. What is it with you?” The answer is that Robert is more voyeur than connoisseur as the third wheel to each of the five couples. His impromptu marriage proposal is done, not out of love, but a fervent desire to just be left alone. If “Bobby” is the public persona and “Robert” the submerged shadow, Sippola plays the former as passive and pensive, only revealing true thoughts and deep emotions through the latter’s song soliloquies at the end of each act.

The five crazy married couples start with Sarah (Katy Helbacka), who is dieting and constantly correcting her husband, Harry (Andy Bennett), who is trying to remain healthy and sober. The neurotic Amy (Jenna Kelly) is engaged to a most understanding Paul (Mike Pederson), while Susan (Kate Zher) and Peter (Bret Amundson) happily announce they are ready to divorce. Jenny (Jenny Graupman) is pretty square, married to round peg David (Bryan Burns). Then there is Joanne (Carolyn LePine), always quick with a cutting remark, while training and tolerating her current husband, Larry (Greg J. Anderson), who overflows with patience and understanding.

Then there are the trio of women that make up Bobby’s love life: hard core New Yorker Marta (Abbey Hergerfeld), who is full of fun; April (Amber Burns), the stewardess who is not only too cute for words, she also knows she is not smart enough for them either; and Kathy (Sarah Diener), who might have been the one that was just right, but their marital impulses were inconveniently at different times. Significantly, the candidate for the girl who got away is the character given the least amount of time on stage.

As the couples bicker and bitch in the vignettes, you have to wonder what Bobby sees in them that is worthy of such persistent envy. Bobby might be in the bulls eye of this musical, but it is those “good and crazy married friends” that end up being skewered. The first act ends with Robert singing “Marry Me a Little,” but we do not really believe he really is ready. Sippola sells the song, but I am not buying the idea his character has really found the answer. That comes at the end of act two.

I have not checked their birth certificates, but my best guess is the entire cast falls short of the 35th birthday that they gathered together to celebrate. Consequently, this production offers a considerably narrower spectrum of married couples than originally conceived, where the relationships run the gamut from the young engaged couple, Amy and Paul, to the battle scared veterans, Joanne and Larry. For LePine’s Joanne to sing she has tried marriage “three or four times” means something decidedly different as a thirtysomething.

But whatever she might lack in age, LePine makes up for with an attitude that is certainly more acerbic and less cynical. Her version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” savors more of the wit of youth than the wisdom of the ages (think Facebook status updates that flash by on the internet more than something brought down from the mountain top carved on stone tablets). The beginning of the song is tinged with palatable shades of sadness, and there is very much a “in vino veritas” vibe to LePine’s uniquely stark interpretation.

“Getting Married Today” is the song from the show that I have heard performed the most (singing it seems to be some sort of rite of passage for UMD musical theatre majors), and Jenna Kelly not only handles the warp speed delivery but also continues to act while singing. Kelly’s Amy also knows how to make a heart flutter with over the shoulder backwards glances while leaving the stage. Then there is Amber Burns, who is absolutely adorable as April, which is hardly news to theatre goers, while Greg J. Anderson has a nice little moment when Larry declares the depths of his feelings for his apparently unfeeling wife.

Director Evan Kelly is also the show’s choreographer, an audacious effort when you consider some of the premier choreographers in the city are in his cast, but he gets the credit for a pair of cute and comic numbers. Bobby’s bevy of girlfriends tap-dance up a storm in the completely captivating “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” Then the high energy structured insanity of “Side by Side by Side” takes a delightful kamikaze kitchen sink approach. Ironically, the production eschews the show’s signature dance number, “Tick Tock,” which I never found particularly effective so it was not missed.

The set design by Topaz Cooks features illuminated steps and a skyline that provides at least one iconic image of New York City. One of the constant elements on stage is the absolute necessity for married couples living in the Big Apple circa 1970, to wit, a bar. However, when Bobby whips out a cell phone rather than checking his answering machine, we realize the setting is now contemporary and there will be no attempt to wax nostalgic about marriage in days gone by.

The cast is wearing microphones, not just because they are needed to be heard over conductor Patrick Colvin and his ten musicians but because of the echo effect required for the overlapping voices of the show’s signature “Overture.” There were a couple of moments when the sound of the instrumentation overwhelms the singing, but the band certainly sounded great from start to finish.

One of the chief joys of this production was rediscovering George Furth’s book and his barbed big city . The first scene after the opening number, where Sarah and Harry having a karate contest after trying to keep each other from smelling the brownies or inhaling the bourbon, is the funniest in the show, although that might owe a lot to the happy union of Helbacka and Bennett on stage. Almost as funny is the scene where Graupman’s confessed square Jenny gets totally stoned.

“Company” is a concept musical, where the show’s statement is more important than the actual narrative. What narrative exists in the show is fragmented and clearly non-linear. Compared to traditional book musicals, “Company” is decidedly post-modern, and you can trace its roots through “Hair” and “Cabaret,” all the way back to “The Three Penny Opera.” Furth’s sense of comedy is more adept than his attempts to uncover meaning and significance, leaving it to Sondheim’s songs to connect the dots, plumb the emotional depths, and elevate “Company” into something quite possibly approaching profundity. Sondheim has been the dominant force in American musical theatre since “Company” debuted, although he may be fated to outlive the Broadway musical genre he has defined now that the Great White Way is threatening to turn into a theme park, defined by revivals and spectacles.

Sippola, who also served as the show’s musical director, is well-known as an aficionado of Sondheim, having assayed the title role in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and performing last Sondheim’s songs is last year’s “A Summer Night of Sondheim” concert (which also featured kindred spirits LePine, Kelly and Colvin). When it comes to songs that require heartfelt emotion, there is simply nobody in town I would rather hear singing than Adam Sippola.

Lawrance Bernabo, fortunately, was married before he saw “Company” for the first time. Otherwise..

Which Play Is Better? Your Chance To Choose!

One writer, two plays: You decide which is best
Christa Lawler – 06/07/2012

Tennessee Williams made his choice clear. In a battle between his play “Summer and Smoke” and the similar-but-different rewrite “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” the latter got the playwright’s nod. “I prefer it,” Williams wrote in the author’s note for the Broadway production of “Eccentricities.” “It is less conventional and melodramatic.” Renegade Theater Company has opted to not pick between the two plays: They’re producing both versions using the same cast and sets and different directors in alternating performances at Teatro Zuccone. “Summer and Smoke,” directed by Molly O’Neill, opens at 8 p.m. today. “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” directed by Anika Thompson, opens at 8 p.m. Friday. Both play on Saturdays. “I don’t know what we were thinking,” theater director Katy Helbacka said and laughed.

How this works

Renegade Theater Company’s season selection committee was kicking around a classic, something they’ve yet to do under the current theater director. When “Summer and Smoke” was mentioned, Thompson — who had read both plays — mentioned the alternate version and threw out the idea: “I said, ‘Let’s do both and let other people make the decision,’ ” Thompson said. It was more of an idea than an edict, but it stuck. The idea fit with Renegade’s lean toward edgy theater. Instead of just doing a classic, they would turn it into extreme theater. It’s not unusual for a company to have simultaneous performances starring the same cast, Helbacka said. “It happens a lot with summer repertory programs,” she said. “But usually it’s completely different shows. They’ll be in ‘Oklahoma’ and a Neil Simon play at the same time.” Rehearsals started about eight weeks ago with chunks of consecutive days dedicated to one script, then switching to the other for a similar period. This meant making clear divisions between the plays. While there was some initial brainstorming between the two directors, they’ve both stayed away from the other production. “For me, I said I don’t want to hear anything about the other show when we’re in rehearsals,” O’Neill said.

For the actors

Carolyn LePine, who plays the lovelorn Alma Winemiller, might have the trickiest job. There are similarities between the shows, but the feel is different, she said. Some of her lines cross over, but come at different points in the different plays and sometimes have a different meaning. “This has literally been the hardest theater thing I’ve ever done,” LePine said. “Once I started getting into it I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is actually possible.’ I knew that it was both plays, which is partially what appealed to me. But I don’t think I realized how difficult it would be. If they were two completely different shows, I don’t think it would be a problem. But the same characters and some of the same scenes and some dialogue moved to different areas of the play … that has been really, really hard.” Joshua Stenvick plays Alma’s love interest, John Buchanan Jr., versions that are different enough to consider them as separate characters. “I’ve had an easier job,” the University of Minnesota Duluth student admitted. “To me, Tennessee Williams wrote them completely different. He’s two different men.”

So which play is better?

Renegade Theater Company’s selection committee originally asked Thompson which version was better, and she said she didn’t know. But when she realized she didn’t have the time to direct both shows, she selected “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” without hesitation, she said. “Previous to that, I hadn’t been able to say (which one I liked better),” she said. “There are elements to both.” The character John is more fun in “Summer and Smoke,” she said. But it’s Alma’s refusal to be a victim in “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” that sold her. “She acknowledges that she’s different, but refuses to change,” Thompson said. “That might make her an outcast, but she can’t change the way she is. It’s a much more empowering version.” O’Neill said she likes the old-fashioned romance of “Summer and Smoke.” “In ‘Eccentricities,’ (Alma’s) the pursuer,” O’Neill said. “John’s more cool and she’s more hot. In this one, John’s hot and she’s cool. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, I just feel like that is such a romance for me.” Plus she gets characters such as Rosa Gonzales, Dr. John Buchanan Sr. and Alma’s young vocal student, Nellie, who aren’t a part of “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” “I have these really cool characters,” O’Neill said. The actor’s aren’t revealing which version of the show they like best. “I don’t want to say,” LePine said. “That’s a secret I’m going to keep to myself,” Stenvick said.

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More Reefer Madness Love

The opening weekend of REEFER MADNESS is in the books, and it was a blast! Thanks to the hundreds of folks who came out, laughed loud and clapped even louder. The cast and crew have worked so incredibly hard on this show, and your support means a lot. So thanks!

If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, we really don’t know what you’re waiting for. But maybe we have something that will convince you to head over HERE and buy your tickets. Oeuvre Magazine posted their review of the show on Saturday. You can click THIS to read it on their site, or you can read the full text below:

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