Sondheim’s ‘Company’ walks onto the LPAC Main Stage

Saturday evening, Swarthmore College’s Drama Board hosted the first musical at Swarthmore in over eight years. “Company,” a comedy-drama, tells the story of a ‘thirty-something’ named Bobby — a bachelor among couples — living in New York City. The play’s music and lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, which were adapted from a book of the same name by George Furth.

Ben Ellentuck played Bobby in Drama Board’s production. (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

For some members of the production, this is not their first time working with Sondheim. Last year, a Tri-College production performed at Bryn Mawr College another Sondheim musical, “Assassins,” a production for which “Company” director Jonghee Quispe ’14 served as vocal director and producer Madeline Charne ’14 was also part of. She describes “Company” as “a concept musical about New York City and marriage, two very ‘charged’ topics.”

“Company” is both deeply funny and immensely serious. Its two primary concerns — marriage and New York — meet in the character of Bobby, played by Ben Ellentuck ’14. After his 35th birthday party, Bobby contemplates the realities of marriage in his own life. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes, which include a variety of musical numbers as well as dialogue between Bobby and his friends.

The performance took place on the LPAC main stage, with the physical space of performance extending deeper into the audience than it does in other plays. The actors were close to the audience in the area of the stage where the orchestra would normally play. Consequently, Ben Kapilow ’13, Company’s instrumental director and conductor, joined the pit orchestra onstage, performing behind a gossamer screen. This curtain was also the backdrop for a projection of the New York City evening skyline.

The scenery was well-lit but sparse, with only a handful of white cubes onstage. These served as both props and devices; a box could be either chair or refrigerator. The minimalism allowed emotions to manifest themselves on stage and for the complex and touching music to be performed alongside the actors. Ana Apostoleris ’13, who played Bobby’s friend Jenny, said, “It’s not a show about things. It’s a show about people.”

After the overture, the number “Company” included the whole cast in a chaotic and highly theatrical celebration of Bobby’s birthday. In a poignant touch, he blows the candles out on an imaginary cake. This scene quickly makes it apparent that the greatest source of both envy and pity for Bobby are his friends — that is to say, his married friends. Apostoleris elaborated on the motivation Bobby discovers. “Bobby realizes he can’t keep living vicariously through his married friends,” she said.

Marriage is on every one’s mind throughout the entirety of the play and one scene in which Bobby, Jenny and David — played by Daniel Cho ’15 — smoke a joint reminds the audience that marriage is also about growing up. Sitting on a rug and giggling like the college students they used to be, this scene offers meditation on compromise, maturity and how those intersect in marital life. Bobby and David discuss whether Jenny was actually high or even “liked it,” which transitions to a musical number with the “husbands” of the cast. The lyrics of the song and the dialogue of the characters spoke about the changes and compromises one makes in growing old together.Many members of the cast and production team noted that portraying such mature themes was a challenge. “The nature and subject matter of the show make it almost unapproachable for college actors,” Quispe said. However, Quispe and other cast mentors — as well as many in the audience — were happy they took the challenge on.

Dinah Dewald in Drama Board’s production of “Company.” (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

Jackson Goodman ’13, who attended the Friday evening performance of “Company,” seemed to agree. “I was impressed by the ability of college students to play middle-aged characters going through things that they haven’t personally experienced while managing to seem completely genuine and convincing. The production highlighted Sondheim’s ability to be funny and incredibly poignant and moving all at the same time.”

The minimalism of the set highlights the colorful, eclectic and intriguing characters of the show. Many of Bobby’s friends, though a bit more so than Jenny or David, have a unique and often risqué backstory, the neuroses of which come out in conversation. Christina Aruffo ’13 shared her experiences playing one of those friends, Susan. A southern belle of sorts, Susan begins the play married to Peter — played by Andrew Dorrance ’15 — though the couple soon divorces over the course of the performance. This personal issue becomes a topic of slightly uncomfortable conversation with Bobby.

Coming from a dance background, Aruffo noted that Sondheim gives difficult parts to singers, which is evident from the first number. Each cast member must sing independent as well as harmonic parts in a cacophonous and overwhelming piece that sounds like ten phone calls to Bobby at once.
Charne, the producer of “Company,” further explained how the play, as a musical, posed a unique challenge in assembling a cast. Singing obviously was an integral part of performing “Company.” However, on the other hand, dance is less of a key musical element: “It’s dance light.” Charne spoke about one scene in particular, in which the cast dons top hats and canes for a chorus-line style performance, as “being in Bobby’s head.”

That being said, the performances — solo, duet or ensemble — were nonetheless spectacular, and the actors performed and sang wonderfully. Anna Ramos ’12, who portrayed hysteric bride Amy, was exceptional in her clear and steady diction as she spoke rapid-fire to an imaginary wedding reception.

Kira White ’13, who attended Friday’s performance, noted this as a standout performance, as well as impressions of the other numbers. “I was surprised at the depth of the material but I thought it fit in well with the humor,” she said. The lyrics of Sondheim are often highly ironic and indeed almost darkly comedic — they speak candidly and openly about extremely serious topics.

“Company” was an excellent return for the musical genre to Swarthmore, and the cast and crew did a wonderful job in portraying a complicated and equally charming play. The authenticity of its actors and the almost mesmerizing austerity of scenery really allowed emotions to color the scenes.

Ana Aposteleris is a sports writer for The Phoenix. She had no role in the production of this article.

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