Saturday, December 9, 2023

Moments of hilarity and tenderness: TACT opens Sondheim classic ‘Company’

Jason Aycock, as Bobby, takes a picture of the cast — his closest pals — in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” opening Friday night at Kenan Auditorium. (Courtesy TACT)

WILMINGTON — It all comes down to relationships, the crux of human nature. 

Stephen Sondheim’s classic, “Company,” has a way of captivating audiences with its timeless foray into its lead character’s bachelorhood.

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Having debuted in 1970 — and winning six Tony Awards — the show has received a recent update on Broadway, winning another five Tonys in 2022. The revival sheds new light on the 14-member show, which has some of its main players switching genders to modernize an otherwise enduring piece of drama.

However, as Thalian Association Community Theatre peels back the curtain at Kenan Auditorium Friday evening, “Company”  —  which was originally supposed to open in February but was postponed due to Covid — will stick to its traditional roots. It’s TACT’s artistic director Chander Davis’ first time directing a Sondheim show.

“Legally, we had to approach it traditionally,” she said of securing rights to the book, written by George Furth, and lyrics by Sondheim (the updated revival on Broadway required Sondheim slightly amending lyrics before his death in 2020; it will tour next year). “The updated version is not available for most theaters yet.”

The show foregoes a linear plot and is centered on serial singleton Robert — “Bobby,” as his friends call him. It works through moments of time in Bobby’s world — a wedding, birthday celebration, dinners and drinks with friends — as he wades through the dating world of New York. 

The stage has been designed as a “sleek” Manhattan skyline by Davis, Mark Hayes and Paul Simon. Davis said there are no scenic changes as the audience watches the characters move through Bobby’s stream-of-consciousness.

The action begins on his 35th birthday, a time when single people often start thinking: “If I want a family, I should get serious as the clock is ticking.” Bobby’s friends gather around to celebrate him.

All are married or at the very least on the brink of divorce. Some worry their pal is living life on the sidelines as an observer, rather than immersing himself into the human connection that makes life fun, messy, captivating, heartbreaking and engaging. Others want his life.

“I think most art about the nature of human relationships is relevant at almost any time,” Davis said of the 50-year-old show. “‘Company’ really captures the joy, security, insecurity, and awkwardness of relationships.”

Performing as Bobby is theater veteran Jason Aycock — though it’s his first time stepping into the role. The show was last staged in Wilmington in 2008. “I saw it several times,” Aycock admitted.

He said one aspect that remains steadfast, no matter the year the show is launched, is that marriage and romantic relationships continuously remain complex in American life.

“Everyone knows couples like this, or the confirmed bachelor, or the different types of girlfriends,” Aycock explained of the writing. “It’s really a clever characterization that truly does resonate whether you’ve been married or not. You recognize these people.”

The show also hones in on the importance of individualism — finding one’s own path toward happiness, whatever it may be. Aycock said the enjoyment of playing Bobby comes from his internal conflict.

“He is interested in the idea of marriage, but he doesn’t actually want to be married — or he wants to be married but doesn’t like everything that comes with it,” Aycock said. “It’s fun to play that perspective and how he gets to look in on these vignettes of all his friends’ relationships.”

One of three of Bobby’s love interests in the show, flight attendant April, is a bit ditzy, if not thoughtful and kind — seeking a life of domesticity. Susie Lunkens performs the role, which appeals to her because of April’s straightforward honesty.

“She takes things as they come,” Lunkens said. “She doesn’t read into or ruminate and make herself miserable. She figures out what she wants, makes the decision, and moves forward.”

Lunkens and Aycock share an intimate moment in the song “Barcelona.” It reflects small talk after a one-night stand indicating a longing of Bobby’s desires to be coupled, even if for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, Bobby’s male friends are every bit envious of his situation, as sung in “Have I Got a Girl For You.” They vicariously live through their unmarried friend’s freedoms — including Peter, performed by Chad Hsu.

“People all over the world feel like they are in a place in life where things could be different,” Hsu described. “They are always feeling like Peter: wishing they had someone else’s life based on what they see. Peter’s story is relatable.”

Hsu last performed in “Company” as Bobby in 2013 in South Carolina. This experience has been different, specifically as he has leaned into Peter’s “lust for life,” even if it is backed by a serious case of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), Hsu added.

Many of the 19 songs in “Company” have long been hailed anthemic — “Being Alive,” “Not Getting Married Today,” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” among them.

“Ladies” is the director’s favorite, covering the hard knocks and lack of options for women in the Manhattan dating scene. 

“The music is gorgeous,” Davis said.

Katie Deese is the music director, leading an 11-piece orchestra: keyboardist Denice Hopper; woodwind players Sheila Hardison, Laura York and Toree McLamb; horn section Casey Black, Carlton Howard and Andy Stanfill; cellist Stephen Pfieffer; guitarist Justin Lacy; bassist Vince Bove; and drummer Drew Wright.

Davis added “iconic” to the score’s description, with a plot left open-ended “that really invites the audience to think.” 

“It also fluctuates between hilarious moments and very tender moments,” she added.

Thalian Association opens “Company” Friday at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium. It runs through Aug. 14, continues Friday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $34.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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