In the PBS series on Broadway that begins tonight, Stephen Sondheim says, "There's `Porgy' " -- referring to George Gershwin's 1935 "Porgy and Bess" -- "and there's everything else." One can say the same thing about Sondheim's "Company," the 1970 musical that found inspiration in the realities, rather than the fantasies, of love. Just as Gershwin showed that the lives of poor African-Americans could be suitable subject matter for a musical, Sondheim found pathos in Bobby, a bachelor unable to commit.
But there we go giving Sondheim all the credit. As the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production demonstrates, George Furth's book makes the talk in between the songs as intelligent as the songs themselves, and that's saying something considering the quality of "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Being Alive," and "Sorry-Grateful."
Given the place that "Company" holds in the musical pantheon, it was a natural choice for SpeakEasy Stage Company to inaugurate the Roberts Studio Theatre within the Boston Center for the Arts's new Stanford Calderwood Pavilion. It gives artistic director Paul Daigneault a chance to take his craft to a higher level, as the state-of-the-art black box provides more bells and whistles than the old BCA theaters, with a composer who has been in the forefront of Boston's growth as a theater community. (Boston is where "Company" debuted in 1970 with, among others, Elaine Stritch.)
This "Company," though, is not the success that other Sondheim productions, like the Lyric Stage Company's recent "A Little Night Music," have been. There are terrific moments as Bobby makes his way from couple to couple and relationship to relationship, trying to make sense of whether being free is worth being alone. Daigneault uses the new space well, but the singing and acting are not consistent throughout, which makes the evening seem like a good musical revue instead of a great musical.
That feeling is exacerbated by the still golden memory of the Huntington Theatre Company's sensational production of seven years ago. Granted, there are thousands of local theatergoers who may not have seen that show, but that production underlines the spottiness of this one.
The good news first. Most of the women are exceptional. The show is worth the price of admission just to see and hear Nancy E. Carroll sing "The Ladies Who Lunch," making the bile of a lifetime accumulate brilliantly with each stanza. And everything that Julie Jirousek, Kerry Dowling, Elaine Theodore, and Stephanie Carlson do as singers and actors sparkles -- Jirousek, Dowling, and Theodore as women in other relationships, Carlson as the ditzy stewardess who sings "Barcelona" with Bobby.
Most of Sondheim's musicals, none more so than "Company," make something almost heroic about trying to convert ambivalence into passion. Carroll, Jirousek, and Dowling can turn that trick in mid-song, sometimes even in mid-note.
The men, particularly Michael Mendiola as Bobby, are capable singers, but don't reach that plateau where humor becomes sorrow or rebellion softens into submission. It's especially noticeable in "Sorry-Grateful," where Sean McGuirk is the only member of the trio to make something beautiful out of the contradictions of commitment. Mendiola finishes strong with "Being Alive," though he doesn't command the stage the way a great Bobby needs to.
Some of the other cast members are weaker than they should be. Merle Perkins and Ted Hewlett are goofy as the gay divorcers. Sara Chase does not sell "Another Hundred People," although costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley certainly sells Chase's sexiness as Marta, one of Bobby's girlfriends. Buckley has a ball with the costumes, though Carroll's wig makes her look as if she's been outfitted for Halloween instead of for "Company." Paul S. Katz's nine-piece band is solid, though the singers couldn't always rise above the playing in the first act.
Eric Levenson's three-tier set is everything it should be and Karen Perlow puts on a light show with flashing colors. Daigneault wisely uses the ending from the 1995 Roundabout revival, a reprise of the title song rather than merely having Bobby blow out the candles on his birthday cake. It's an energetic way to go out in a production that doesn't always have the forcefulness that it should.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.