In the summer of 2016, when director Marianne Elliott first workshopped the revival of Company she and Stephen Sondheim were updating with a woman in the role of Bobby (now Bobbie), she emailed the composer and lyricist to note that the cameraman loved the show but thought it was a new work. When Elliott explained it was an update of a 1970 musical that featured a male protagonist, he replied, “Bobbie a man? But how could that work?”
When Company debuted more than half a century ago, focusing on a commitment-phobic Bobby made perfect sense. After all, the idea of a commitment-phobic woman was as alien in popular culture then as mobile phones. Both certainly existed in 1970, but they were too exotic to focus a musical on. Women were expected to get married, or at least to want to get married, even if the 60s had made it more acceptable for women (in big cities, anyway) to enjoy the single life well into their 20s. But at 35? Such a character would have been more aspirational than relatable back then.
Times have changed. Now, more and more cis women are understandably punching the pause button on marriage well into their thirties or forties or forever. They have options. So shackling themselves to the stubbornly persistent vestiges of the patriarchy often takes a back seat to pursuing a career along with serial or sequential romances when and if the mood strikes. Who wants to give up their last name? Who wants to take on more of the emotional and domestic labor that straight couplehood tends to pile on women’s shoulders even as their careers may well be every bit as demanding as those of their husbands?
Ok, you think in that circumstance, maybe it might be nice to settle down, eventually, after carefully choosing. But then there’s still the fact that most of your friends will have long coupled up by then, and maybe you want kids, and maybe your parents want grandkids and for you to find a husband already, and maybe only the defective men will be left once you are finally ready to settle down in your late 30s or beyond. Ugh!
These are the very real and relatable stakes Company delivers with Bobby wonderfully transitioned to Bobbie in this first national tour of the 2022 Tony-winning Broadway production that got its start on London’s West End in 2018. Sondheim’s only stipulation when he agreed to work on the gender-swapped update with Elliott was that George Furth’s book be left intact. He was willing to update anything else that made sense, including, ultimately, introducing a gay couple to the mix. Thus Amy becomes Jamie, who is engaged to Paul. This gives Bobbie, a modern single straight woman in New York, gay male friends, which Elliott knew were needed to complete a full picture of such a life in the city as we near a quarter-way through the 21st century.
It all works splendidly in this talent-packed production headed by the charismatic, instantly likable Britney Coleman (fresh off her run in the first national tour of Beetlejuice), who shows off a beautiful singing voice on “Someone Is Waiting,” “Marry Me a Little” and, most of all, “Being Alive.”
Once Sondheim got over his initial resistance to adding a gay couple to the show (he was still chagrined that some critics had concluded Bobby in the 1970 version was a closeted gay man), he quickly warmed to the idea and predicted that “Getting Married Today” sung by Jamie instead of Amy would be a show stopper. And boy, is it, as led by Matt Rodin (Jamie), with fine support from Ali Louis Bourzgui (essaying Paul, after a stellar run as Tommy at the Goodman), and a company that also includes standout performances from Judy McLane (a scenery-chomping Joanne, especially on “The Ladies Who Lunch” and the moment where she ably skewers Chicago with a choice dismissal of a previous husband from our fair city), James Earl Jones II (a hilarious Harry) and Kathryn Allison (his equally riotous wife, Sarah).
The staging, lighting and sets–with apartments represented by large modular boxes moving on and off stage, giant neon-style letters big enough to sit and chat on, a kitchen set that hides all manner of places from which cast members can pop in, and a “35” balloon that appears repeatedly in multiple sizes to keep the pressure on Bobbie–are sleekly effective.
By the end of this stellar production, one might be excused for thinking that Bobbie’s going to make it after all.
A Company with Bobbie as a man? But how could that work indeed? Maybe as a much-beloved, but not-so-timely museum piece.
Company runs through November 12 at Cadillac Palace Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Matthew Murphy