MANILA — Nearly 50 years after it made its debut on Broadway in 1970, Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy “Company” has been making waves again with a brave revival that recasts the lead character Bobby as a bachelorette. This gender-switching version was a hit in London’s West End and no doubt will also take New York by storm when it opens in spring next year.
But it’s not just abroad where audiences are getting reacquainted with this well-loved musical. “Company” is also making a return to the Manila stage decades after it was mounted by Repertory Philippines back in the ‘90s. While Upstart Productions stayed with the musical’s original male lead character in this staging, director Topper Fabregas proved that this popular Sondheim work can feel fresh and modern while still staying true to the norms and spirit of the ‘70s.
“Company” was actually a sophisticated work even for its time. Playwright George Furth wrote it as a series of vignettes, played out inside the head of commitment-shy bachelor Bobby as he turns 35. A single man in New York surrounded by married friends, Bobby reassesses his own life and what he truly wants as he recalls dinner parties and conversations with friends. There’s the competitive Harry and Sarah, both with their respective addictions; the settled David and Jenny, who have found fulfillment in their daily normal routine; Peter and Susan, who pull a surprise when they announced that they are getting divorced but still living together; Amy, who suddenly gets cold feet on the day of her wedding to longtime boyfriend Paul; and the wealthy Harry and Joanne, now on her fourth marriage.
Plotless and non-linear, “Company” has proven to be timeless, and this search for happiness and contentment still rings true regardless of decade or gender. Director Fabregas knows and appreciates this very human quest and his version of “Company” is more emotionally resonant than just funny (even if there are plenty of jokes tossed around) or hummable. Since “Company” boasts of a vibrant score and ingenious lyrics courtesy of Sondheim, it is tempting to treat the “plot” as a mere platform for the songs. That would be the easy thing to do but, thankfully, this was not the case here.
In his previous plays as director, Fabregas usually employs a realistic, lived in set, like in the acclaimed “Tribes” and the Virgin Labfest charmer “The Bride and the Bachelor.” But for “Company,” he went for the exact opposite of that with an austere, minimalist design aesthetic.
Moreover, Fabregas opted for a theater-in-the-round staging, with set designer Joey Mendoza placing a rectangular stage at the center of the Maybank Performing Arts Theater, with the audience on all four sides. It’s an unexpected setup but, to borrow a line from the show’s anthem “Being Alive,” it forces the audience to care. Or at least be more attentive.
And such attention will be rewarded with a deeper understanding and regard for Furth’s book. Fabregas gives equal, if not more importance to the non-musical parts, which he guides with an obviously loving hand — the bittersweet revelations between Bobby and one-time flame Kathy, that marijuana scene that had a strong nostalgic underpinning, or that blunt proposition of Joanne that triggers a major life realization.
Fabregas even chose to drop the “optional” number “Tick Tock,” which functioned more as a dance solo for the actress who plays Kathy. If there is any number that dates “Company” to the groovy ‘70s, this was it. Instead of “Tick Tock,” Fabregas dove immediately to the scene of Bobby and April that segues to “Barcelona,” with Maronne Cruz exuding an awkward sexiness that was a joy to watch.
Even “Getting Married Today,” usually played for its hilarity, was given a more appropriate dramatic edge, with Cathy Azanza-Dy clearly charting the character’s anxiety-driven breakdown. The play’s other big showstopper, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” was performed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo with deep-seated anger and resentment beneath what appears to be a drunken rant.
Yet despite those stellar numbers, these talented actresses do not run away with the show. You leave the theater with full respect for the entire ensemble, a sparkling gathering of musical theater veterans who seem truly eager and excited to be part of this musical. Apart from Lauchengco-Yulo, Azanza-Dy, and Cruz, “Company” stars Caisa Borromeo, Bianca Lopez, Jill Pena, Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, Ariel Reonal, Nicky Trivino, James Uy, Chino Veguillas, Michael Williams, and Upstart’s founder Joel Trinidad.
Then there’s OJ Mariano, who as Bobby is the charming center of “Company.” Gifted with a pleasant voice, Mariano is a relatable leading man and his Bobby is not so much the ‘70s version of a serial player but the nice guy who usually finishes last. This made his version of “Being Alive” not so much the bombastic concert piece it has become but a touching affirmation of life and love with all its joys and sorrows.
Love is company, as the opening number says, and Upstart’s “Company” is love.
“Company” runs until September 22 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater in Taguig City.