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Orpheus musical offers several happy surprises

Production of Company a cut above community theatre
by Steven Mazey [Monday, March 4, 2002]

It's one of the trickiest, most difficult songs in musical theatre, and Nicole Williams not only gets through Getting Married Today but sends it soaring in the Orpheus Musical Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical Company, now playing at Centrepointe Theatre.

Performed at the pace of a country auctioneer, the song is the crazed monologue of a woman who is about to get married and is suddenly gripped by a thousand second thoughts. Hilarious when done well, the song is a ferocious tongue twister, and more than a few professional performers have suffered agonies trying to get it right.

The singer has to deliver long phrases (like "thank-you for the 27 dinner plates and 37 butter knives and 47 paperweights and 57 candleholders"), with precious few places to take a breath.

It's a pleasure to hear Williams do it so beautifully, making every word clear and adding little gestures and inflections that bring the song to full comic life. The only disappointment on opening night was that in the final moments, when the woman's husband-to-be (Kris Lizuck) joins in to offer his own thoughts in counterpoint, the sound technicians cranked up Lizuck's volume and allowed him to drown out Williams' last hysterical phrases.

You rarely get performances of this calibre in amateur productions, and it doesn't come as a surprise to read in the program that Williams trained in musical theatre and has appeared in professional productions.

This isn't unusual in Orpheus shows, and it's partly why the company has a reputation for prodcutions that are several notches above what audiences tend to associate with community theatre.

Sonheim's music is not easy. His lyrics are full of twists and turns, and his music is often harmonically complicated. His ensemble numbers are particularly challenging, weaving together snippets of assorted characters' thoughts in a way that demands Swiss-clock precision from the performers.

Stage director Bob Lackey, musical director John McGovern and the well-chosen cast in this production meet many of those challenges. The singing is geneverally impressive, and the performers enunciate the songs with refreshing crispness. With Sondheim's rich words, you want to be able to hear everything.

True, there is an amateur-theatre stiffness in some of the acting, and not everyone seems equally at ease on stage, but there is much to applaud here.

Company broke new ground for musicals by avoiding a simple, linear storyline. This musical travels back and forth in time and through vignettes looks at themes including commitment and marriage and the alienation of life in a big city.

Sondheim's music is challenging, weaving together snippets of assorted character's thoughts in a way that demands Swiss-clock precision from the performers .

The central character is Bobby (Dean Foster McNeill) who has just turned 35 and is unmarried, nervous about committing to one person. He's surrounded by friends who are married and are intent on getting him married too. Company offers snippets of the couples' lives as seen through Bobby's eyes.

Through their assorted problems, he sees some of the compromises of marriage, but as the musical progresses he also begins to recognize some of its rewards.

McNeill, who has performed in rock bands and toured in the Canadian production of Rent, has a strong signing voice, and he handles Bobby's songs admirably. he needs more experience on stage, however, to be as comfortable in his acting and movement as he is with singing.

Highlights of the production include Dennis Van Staalduinen and Shaun Toohey in Sorry-Grateful, a tender song in which two men sing about the mixed feelings that marriage can bring; Kelly Whelan's performance of Another Hundred People and the performance by Whelan, Marie-France Arcilla and Shawna Morgan of You Could Drive a Person Crazy, the clever song in which Bobby's girlfriends lament his refusal to settle down (it's also nicely choreographed by Debbie Miller).

Dianna Renee Yorke does a solid version of The Ladies Who Lunch, that lacerating tune about rich, bored, big-city women, though she doesn't manage the sozzled, acidic edge that the great Elaine Stritch brought to the first production (the original cast album is highly recommended).

Tricia Baldwin's Manhattan set (simple but serviceable) and the strong playing by the 12-piece band under McGovern's direction are other winning elements in a production that offers several happy surprises. Orpheus has taken on a big challenge here, and done it well.

Company continues at Centrepointe Theatre through Saturday. Tickets, at $18 and $22 for adutls, $16 and $20 for seniors are available at the box office or by calling 727-6650. There are $12 balcony tickets for students, tonight through Wednesday.