Chicago Theatre Review
Matrimony in Manhattan
Company – Writers Theatre
Updated to 2016 with cell phones, contemporary fashions and fewer characters smoking, this exciting new production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s concept musical sizzles in William Brown’s visionary production. It’s a musical about life choices, focusing particularly on matrimony in Manhattan. The show’s based upon a book, a series of short plays revolving around marriage, that Furth wrote earlier in his career. Originally entitled “Threes,” the musical doesn’t progress chronologically. It focuses on one particular young man, on his birthday, examining the rewards and disadvantages he’s enjoyed from his inability to commit. It’s one of the very first musicals to be concerned with adult themes. For their efforts, this unique 1970 musical was nominated for a then record 14 Tony Awards, winning six.
Bobby’s a smart, sophisticated and likable New Yorker about to mark another milestone. The musical opens on the eve of his 35th birthday surprise party, but for this young man his special day will be spent contemplating what’s most important in his life and whether or not it might finally be time to settle down. Through a series of vignettes depicting past moments spent with his married friends, five wedded couples of varying ages and levels of contentment, as well as with three single ladies he’s been dating off and on, Bobby finds himself at the threshold of self-discovery.
William Brown has put his own creative stamp on this iconic Sondheim piece, beginning with an opening montage of cell phone messages played against Todd Rosenthal’s stunning aerial backdrop of the New York skyline. His leadership, direction and musical staging is thoughtful, focused and inspired, tapping into the strengths of his large ensemble and always focusing on his diverse characters, both individually and as a company. Brown’s high energy staging pulses with a Manhattan beat, helping establish the Big Apple as another important character in this production.
As the show opens, Bobby is envisioning one more evening spent with his friends at the (non) surprise birthday party they’ll be throwing for him. As he considers each couple or girlfriend, memories are triggered. Married couple Harry and Sarah seem at odds with each other, as she struggles with her diet and he with drink. They humorously vent their frustrations employing an hilarious martial arts therapy. Susan and Peter, the seemingly perfect married couple, announce surprisingly that they’re divorcing. More conservative couple Jenny and David enjoy tempting each other with exciting, new experiences, such as experimenting with marijuana and using four-letter words. Easily agitated Amy is uber paranoid about tying the knot with her longtime, congenial boyfriend, Paul, and Joanne, on her third marriage with laid back Larry, is continually on the lookout for the next big thrill, be it drugs, booze or a younger lover, such as Bobby. Sweethearts Marta, Kathy and ditzy airline stewardess April individually offer Bobby their own unique qualities, but neither woman provides the entire package he’s seeking. The show concludes with Bobby searching his soul (“Being Alive”) and choosing to spend his 35th birthday by himself, contemplating what the next stage of his life will bring.
This magnificent, talented cast works effortlessly, both together and individually. Standouts include a feisty, Alexis J. Rogers as a very funny Sarah, and a playful James Earl Jones II as her manipulated hubby, Harry. Blair Robertson impeccably captures an uptight, but emotionally sublimated Jenny, Allison Hendrix is magnificent as hyperkinetic Amy (her brilliant rendition of the hilarious patter song, “Getting Married Today,” sung with lovely Tiffany Scott, as southern belle Susan, and Bernard Balbot, as Paul, Amy’s sweet, considerate husband-to-be, is one of the show’s highlights) and Lia Mortensen is terrific as a youthful, booze-swilling and acerbic Joanne. Ms. Mortensen’s stunning delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” one of Sondheim’s best-known songs about disenchantment, is an absolutely riveting performance of pained distain.
Christine Mild’s zealous, I-Love-Manhattan Marta, is excellent, especially while enacting her powerhouse patter song, “Another Hundred People,” her dramatic choices creating a powerful elegy to the impersonal, frenetic pace of city life. Chelsea Morgan is a frank, emotionally vulnerable Kathy, who’s grown tired of waiting for Bobby to make a commitment. And beautiful Jess Godwin is dreamy and sweetly naive as April, a gullible flight attendant looking for love. Ms. Godwin particularly shines in her number, “Barcelona,” during which April runs the gamut of emotions. The song is brilliantly written and is a great example of how less can be more.
As Bobby, handsome Thom Miller brings with him a resume of fine theatrical experience, making his Chicago debut in this iconic role a star turn. While providing an empathetic sounding board for all his “good and crazy people, my married friends,” Mr. Miller also shows us a man searching his soul and discovering who he’s become over the years. He creates his character with a knowing confidence and sings the blazes out of ballads like “Someone is Waiting,” “Marry Me a Little” and the moving finale, “Being Alive.”
Writers Theatre demonstrates in this, their second production staged in their gorgeous, new main stage space, why they remain one of Chicagoland’s premiere companies. With each production, the theatre company displays unparalleled excellence. William Brown’s production of this classic, musically directed by the gifted Tom Vendafreddo and choreographed by the award-winning Brock Clawson, smoothly brings this 70’s musical into the 21st century. Sondheim’s beautiful music and biting lyrics together with Furth’s no-holds-barred book prove to be the perfect fit for this stellar, ever-evolving “Company.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 15-July 31 by Writers Theatre at the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com