MARINETTE, Wis. (WFRV) – Stephen Sondheim died five months ago. A glimpse of his scope as a Broadway creator is on display in “Company” this weekend.
The musical from 1970 is very much New York City, loaded with tricky singing and spiced with storytelling of complex people. Sophisticated.
The production by Theatre on the Bay is game for all the challenges while using imagination of its own for the thrust stage of Herbert L. Williams Theatre, associated with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Marinette Campus.
The story turns around Robert, who has arrived at his 35th birthday wondering about marriage. What transpires are takes on friends in his life, women in his life and what to do about him marrying, if at all.
The friends all have partners and bonds – and advice for Robert about how he should live his life based on what has been best for them, the best being imaginary in some cases because their relationships are disasters with dollops of tangy humor.
If that sentence were lyrics, Stephen Sondheim would write a song line for one person to be joined by three or for or five voices layered in, singing quickly, often with long notes ending the final word.
The opening scene has Robert witnessing a karate challenge between a diet-crazed wife and a closet-boozer husband, complete with choreographed flips to the floor of the stage.
Other choreography weaves into the show. Some is for dancing, including with a dance line for the company of “Company.” Some is for moving the furnishings on stage; the same set pieces of Robert’s apartment are arranged to become furnishings in other places, with players taking turns as the stage crew.
Much time of preparation by director John Thornberry, music director Brittany Welch and their creative teammates is compressed into 2½ dense hours of collaborative performance by mostly widely experience players.
As Robert, Chase Grabowski is called on to be a part of, or full front-and-center for, rolling displays of couples and girlfriends treading water through life, some thrashing more than others. The role is a giant acting/singing challenge, and Chase Grabowski is engaging all the way through. By the time of the earnest climax song, “Being Alive,” his performance essentially depicts why Robert’s friends like him.
Around that keystone performance, others embrace their characters to draw colorful pictures:
+ Cerina Grawey, Brittney Koerner and Jacilyn Knight as the girlfriends, a kind of rainbow of Robert’s taste in women, each consisting of complex hues. Together, they have a summation of Robert in the song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
+ Wendy Baron and Sam Wargula as the feisty couple of the karate caper.
+ Marie Newton and Sarah Severson-Roehm as the happy couple who are happy in their surprise divorce.
+ Jacqueline Nutter and David Stary as the oh-so-right couple who let loose with Robert on a night of pot.
+ Lisa Atkinson-LeBoeuf and Scott Nowakowski as the grouchy grande dame with a solid-foundation husband. Lisa Atkinson-LeBoeuf delivers one of the musical’s showcase songs, the boozy “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
+ Brittany Welch and Justin Pilz as the meltdown-on-wedding-day bride and put-upon groom. Brittany Welch also is music director, so along with guiding important sequences for others, she takes on Stephen Sondheim’s maniacal, hot verbal rush of the frenetic bride with cold feet.
+ Kate Schwaba and Keaton Bartz, along with being peripheral characters in party scenes, etc., flash quick feet in a tap-dance bit with the bungling Robert.
The show requires a bit of daring to put on. Stephen Sondheim is not for the faint of heart. This production radiates pleasure in purpose in the company, impressively so.
Running time: 2½ hours
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. April 8-9 and 2 p.m. April 10
Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Sondheim; book – George Furth; director, set and sound designer – John Thornberry; music director – Brittany Welch; choreographer – Heather Olsen; lighting designer – Chris Weber; costume supervisor – Rebecca Archambault; producer – Linda Hornick
Joanne – Lisa Atkinson-LeBoeuf
Sarah – Wendy Baron
Bobby – Chase Grabowski
Marta – Cerina Grawey
April – Jacilyn Knight
Kathy – Brittany Koerner
Peter – Marie Newton
Larry – Scott Nowakowski
Jenny – Jacqueline Nutter
Paul – Justin Pilz
Susan – Sarah Severson-Roehm
David – Daniel Stary
Harry – Sam Wargula
Amy – Brittany Welch
Ensemble – Keaton Bartz
Ensemble – Kate Schwaba
Songs (recorded soundtrack)
“Company” – Robert and Company
“The Little Things You Do Together” – Joanne and Couples
“Sorry-Grateful” – Harry, David and Larry
“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – Kathy, April and Marta
“Have I Got a Girl for You” – Larry, Peter, Paul, David, Harry
“Someone Is Waiting” – Robert
“Another Hundred People” – Marta
“Getting Married Today” – Amy, Paul, Choirgirl and Company
“Marry Me a Little” – Robert
“Side by Side by Side”/“What Would We Do without You?” – Robert and Couples
“Poor Baby” – Sarah, Jenny, Susan, Amy, Joanne
“Have I Got a Girl for You” (Reprise) – Larry, Peter, Paul, David, Harry
“Tick-Tock” – Kathy (Instrumental)
“Barcelona” – Robert and April
“The Ladies Who Lunch” – Joanne
“Being Alive” – Robert
“Finale Ultimo/ “Company” – Robert and Company
NEXT: “9 to 5 The Musical,” July 14-24.
THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, 750 W. Bay Shore St. The bay of Green Bay is in shouting distance to the east. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.
THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act and appeared many times in leading roles at Theatre on the Bay. Mostly, Herb Williams loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, she operates a bed and breakfast in Menominee, Michigan.
VENUE UPDATE: Herbert L. Williams Theatre will receive a facelift starting after the summer production and into fall 2022. Along with accessibility upgrades, updated will be sound and lighting equipment and theater seating.