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November 5, 2012

Event: Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” by Dream World Productions
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 1st – 17th Nov 2012

Sunday In The Theatre With Bobby

Stagings of Stephen Sondheim musicals are pretty much a rare occurrence here in Singapore, although there seems to be a growing number of Sondheim fans who are besotted with the Broadway legend, and with good reason.

Dream Academy’s fascination with Sondheim is fairly well documented, and Selena Tan and company bring to us the second Sondheim production in as many years, following up from last year’s “Into The Woods”.

It was reported in the papers last year that “Into The Woods” had seen sluggish ticket sales, so kudos to Dream for bravely attempting to put on “Company” this year, which is directed by Hossan Leong.

Sondheim musicals are a notoriously tough sell, and even the original Broadway runs of a number of his acclaimed shows such as “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George” had suffered financial losses.

A large part of it has to do with the fact that Sondheim’s music is often regarded as “inaccessible”, and it does say quite a bit that apart from “Send in the Clowns”, very few of his songs have actually gone on to become mainstream hits, which is in contrast to the immense crossover appeal of the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe and Lloyd Webber.

“Company” is sometimes considered the crown jewel in the Sondheim oeuvre (depending on who you ask), and it should be noted that it marked the start of the highly-successful collaboration between Sondheim and producer Harold Prince, which subsequently yielded other well-known musicals such as “Follies”, “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd”.

This concept musical first opened on Broadway in 1970, and it examines the issue of marriage as it pertains to a certain 35-year-old swinging single named Bobby, played by Malaysian actor Peter Ong.

Bobby’s friends, all of whom are either married or in a relationship, come together to throw him a surprise birthday party in his apartment, and throughout the musical, we see a series of unrelated scenes where the idiosyncratic relationships of each of the couples are put under the microscope, with Bobby often being the innocuous observer in all of it.

There is also the matter of Bobby’s three girlfriends April (Seong Hui Xuan), Marta (Mina Ellen Kaye) and Kathy (Glory Ngim), which makes the dilemma of whether to settle down or not all the more complicating.

The opening song (“Company”) is one of the more breathtaking opening sequences I’ve experienced yet in a musical, in terms of the complexity of vocal arrangements and the use of polyphony.

Just thinking about the amount of thought and work that went into the construction of Sondheim’s music does sometimes blow your mind.

But that is not to say that his lyric-writing abilities are in any way inferior to his compositional skills.

This is, after all, the same writer who first cut his teeth on Broadway writing lyrics for the great Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story” and for Jule Styne on “Gypsy” before going on to write both his own lyrics and melodies.

Sondheim’s lyrics are some of the finest you’d find anywhere, and standout songs for me include the frightfully ironic “Sorry-Grateful” and the hauntingly poetic “Another Hundred People”, which was wonderfully delivered by Mina Ellen Kaye.

Part of Sondheim’s genius lay in his ability to write incredibly dramatic lyrics which allow the actors room to fully dramatise whatever they are singing, and there is no better example of this than in the song “Barcelona”, which is one of the most realistic, elegant and poignant postcoital scenes you’d ever come across, all neatly encapsulated in a song.

Peter Ong must be lauded for his spirited portrayal of the commitment-phobic Bobby, although his interpretation of the role seemed to lean more towards wide-eyed optimism rather than cautious cynicism.

The trio of Hui Xuan, Mina Ellen and Glory exhibited great chemistry, and gave as rousing a rendition of “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” as one could ever hope for.

Hui Xuan should be singled out for her enigmatic turn as the ditzy flight stewardess April, and was a joy to watch.

The choreography by George Chan was slick, and fit in beautifully with the musical’s urban-chic setting, while vocally the cast were competent, although Tan Kheng Hua – great actress that she is – seemed a bit strained while delivering the bossa nova-infused “The Ladies Who Lunch”.

Kudos to the band for deftly pulling off a Sondheim score, which isn’t always the easiest of scores to pull off, what with all its difficult harmonies and tricky rhythms.

Special mention goes to pianist Joanne Ho, who played on the Steinway placed on stage in full view of the audience, whereas the rest of the band had the luxury of being nestled behind a screen at the back of the stage.

If there was a highlight of the largely plot-less musical, it would have been Petrina Kow’s stunning rendition of the character Amy’s “Getting Married Today”, which probably ranks as one of the most difficult songs in musical theatre to pull off thanks to the speed of its rapid-fire delivery that would even put most rap songs to shame.

Petrina not only delivered a word-perfect rendition, but also did it with remarkable clarity and impeccable dynamic shadings that it was hard not to view the moment as the definite high point of the show.

It was apparent that attempts were made by the creative team to try and localise the show as much as possible with the inclusion of many familiar local references.

However, it did get slightly confusing at times, especially when the inherent American references like “niece from Ohio” or “meat-packing company in Chicago” would jostle with the distinctly Singaporean references, making you wonder exactly where the musical was supposed to be set in.

There is no doubt that one should go catch Dream’s staging of “Company”, if not for the wonderful cast, then at least to witness one of the landmark Broadway shows.

The audience attendance on the night that I was there was highly encouraging, and it does seem like Dream is doing something right.

Perhaps they were spot-on in the way they positioned this show – by playing up the mid-30’s singlehood versus marriage dilemma which seems oh-so relevant to many of us living in Singapore today.

And to build on the point, perhaps we could also venture to say that Dream’s greatest triumph with this production is in contextualising a Sondheim musical for a local audience, and opening our eyes and ears to the beauty and depth to what has usually been considered an esoteric and inaccessible piece of musical theatre.

Will there be more Sondheim musicals to come?

Who knows.

But if we’re lucky, we might even get to see a certain demon barber work his magic, or even an ancient Roman farce in the near future.

One can only dream.

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