Review: Finding Good Company in Upstart Production’s Staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”

The theater is best known to churn out larger-than-life characters in otherworldly scenarios. The more grandiose, dramatic, convoluted, and bigger the storyline is, the more theatrical it becomes and the more it resonates with fans of the live theater. And then there are those that are more grounded on everyday life—mirroring normalcy in the lives of people who are actually recognizable—could be your colleague, your relative, or your best friend, or even yourself.

Such is the case with “Company”, a musical comedy that has its roots all the way back in the1970s. With music and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, the musical comedy zooms in on the life its 35-year-old hero, Bobby—the lone bachelor in his circle of married and committed friends.

The production opens on the night of the celebration of Bobby’s (O.J. Mariano) birthday, surrounded by friends who have all been urging him to settle down. Without a set plotline to follow, we see Bobby’s recollection of various moments and conversations shared with important people that surround his life, from parties, dates, casual dinners, and night-outs—painting a picture of how he has lived his life in the past years. Each vignette, however, builds Bobby’s assessment of what it is that he truly wants, which he would later on admit that he is very much ready to confront and face head on.

Sweet Plantado-Tiongson and Joel Trinidad | Image courtesy of Upstart Productions

First, we meet Harry (Joel Trinidad, who is also the show’s producer) and Sarah (Sweet Plantado-Tiongson), both living harmoniously amidst suppressing weird obsessions; David (Chino Veguillas) and Jenny (Bianca Lopez), who bask in the beauty of their relationship amidst the monotony of their lives’ routines as partners; Peter (Ariel Reonal) and Susan (Nicky Trivino) who somehow found comfort in living together albeit leading separate lives after their divorce; there’s Amy (Cathy Azanza-Dy) and Paul (James Uy) who were caught in the middle of a wedding-day debacle; and of course the captivating Joanne (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) the snarky, wealthy woman on her new husband Larry (Michael Williams). Glimpses of his relationships with three different women in different stages of his life were also depicted from April (Maronne Cruz), Kathy (Jill Pena), and Marta (Caisa Borromeo). All scenarios adds up to the question, why is Bobby still single? What does he want? More importantly, where is he in his life?

Nearly half a century since it first made its way on Broadway, “Company” has since made waves and cemented Sondheim’s musical genius. Recently, it has gained new interest overseas as it recently was restaged in London’s West End with a reimagined gender-switch for its lead, Bobby became Bobbie, who is faced daunting questions on her life as a single woman in New York.

Upstart Productions restages “Company” in Manila to bridge the decade-long gap since Repertory Philippines’ first attempt to bring the iconic musical to the country. This time, helmed by Topper Fabregas, the production stays faithful to its original material with the male lead role to navigate his internal questions on what the societal dictate of marrying at a certain age is all about, or simply put, what marriage, as a practice, really is all about.

Fabregas, the Gawad Buhay awardee, was really in it for a challenge with this one. “Company”, simple as the narrative may seem, is, in many ways, a canon in musical theater. And since its inception, the musical has thrived in perfectly encapsulating its Manhattan identity.

Originally produced and directed for the Broadway stage by Harold Prince, with the orchetrations of Jonathan Tunick, the challenge, for Fabregas and the whole of the production, lies on how this particular staging would bring the musical to 2019 with the same relevance as it had years back, more so to appeal to the Filipino audiences’ sensibilities—not alienating them with largely Western concepts put forth by its original.

Fabregas, however, succeeds in both aspects. While he had the luxury of playing around with a timeless material, his smarts and cleverness as a director has shown. He has given the same respect to the speaking parts the same way he did in the song and dance sequences, that it allowed the audiences to sift through the spectacle and see depth that lies in its core.

Teaming up with acclaimed musical director Rony Fortich, this particular staging transported theater-goers to a fabulous ride not just on its sharp, biting wit and humor, but of stellar numbers that highlighted talents of veteran theater actors and new ones that show great promise. As such, each of the vignettes and their respective numbers, are but great vessels for an inner dialogue on rediscovering oneself, utilized by the play to leave a lasting impression on the viewers.

The minimalist set design, what with its movable blocks that the actors assemble from time to time in each of the vignettes, sans the noticeable but minor glitches, allowed the audiences to focus more on the stars of the play: its characters, thus making it into an immersive character study.

Cathy Azanza-Dy and James Uy as Amy and Paul in “Company”. | Image courtesy of Upstart Productions

Mariano, leading the pack of actors with the lead role, is laudable, serving as anchor for narratives expounded on stage in each of the vignettes. His vocals prove to be of exceptional caliber and his storytelling, while subtle and understated is relatable and engaging.

In the end, the women did conquer the stage. From Plantado-Tiongson’s effortlessly comedic portrayal as Sarah, to Menchu Yulo’s commanding presence as the fierce Joanne, down to Maronne Cruz’ and Caisa Borromeo’s turns as April and Marta respectively. But it was definitely Cathy Azanza-Dy’s Amy that stood out with a breathtaking performance—in every sense. Her take as the disgruntled bride-to-be was a sight to behold and it did deserve a good round of applause.

“Company” hid its premise under fun, explosive numbers but what is left when the lights dimmed was the universal idea of looking at yourself as your best company.

“Company” runs until September 22 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater at the BGC Arts Center. Rank Magazine is an official media partner of Upstart Productions staging of “Company: A Musical Comedy”.