Marriage is a ball and chain for some. For others, it’s refuge. To the romantic — and lucky — it’s a sacred completion, while to the pragmatic it might amount to little more than simply not having to be alone. For audiences of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company” (through Oct. 9 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston), married life is a puzzling and paradoxical morass — although a hugely entertaining one, dotted with standout renditions of beloved songs — because the audience approaches marriage from the point of view of Robert (a well-cast John Ambrosino), the bachelor and odd man out among a tight-knit clutch of five New York couples.
The Lyric is no stranger to Sondheim’s works, and this season-opening presentation of the multi-Tony Award-winning musical follows last winter’s production of “Sondheim on Sondheim.” It also marks the start of a five-season mission by the Lyric to focus — pending the availability of rights — on bringing selections from the Sondheim catalog to the stage. The Lyric also intends to make the composer’s work the subject of workshops, a new competition geared toward celebrating local college actors (the New England College Sondheim Competition) and a new annual award for furthering musical theater: the Boston Stephen Sondheim Award. (Meantime, another major Boston company — the Huntington — has announced plans of its own to stage a dozen Sondheim works over the course of upcoming seasons.)"
Boston’s Sondheim mania gets a strong launch here with an affectionate and expert reading of the material, delivered by a strong cast that acts well, sings well and is clearly having a good time with the whole deal. Robert’s impressions of marriage — yearning, curiosity, a touch of abhorrence — are illustrated in a series of comic vignettes that are anchored by a single event: Robert’s 35th birthday party. Time is passing, and an intermittent sense of fear and near-panic sparks within Robert, even as he glories in his status as the calm and reliable focal point of sanity for his harried, harrowed, stressed-out friends. They, in turn, fret over his unattached status, but at the same time they depend on his availability and uncomplicated singledom to leaven their own relationships. (The occasional snort and toke help in this regard, too.)
One couple, Harry and Sarah (Davron S. Monroe and Kerri Wilson), have fallen into a groove of relationship karate illustrated by an uproarious, extended dustup using actual martial arts moves. Their points of contention: He drinks too much; she can’t stick to a diet. They keep one another’s appetites reined in, more or less, and their sparring is generally loving and friendly, but there’s no mistaking the streak of serious purpose beneath their jostling and their banter. Robert, meantime, just wants a little brandy, and he hesitates awkwardly on the sidelines as Harry offers a glass and Sarah invites him to sample a brownie. Who knew life partnership could make cocktail hour such a minefield?
“You’re always sorry; you’re always grateful,” Bobby's friends explain, when he asks them for their thoughts on married life. Perplexing as that sounds, their day-to-day strategies are even more off-the-wall. Peter and Susan (Matthew Zahnzinger and Elise Arsenault) have found a novel way to defuse the tensions of marriage while preserving the happiness of their bond: They get a divorce, but continue to live together just as always. (This makes them feel more married than ever.) Amy and Paul (Erica Spyres and Tyler Simahk) move in the opposite direction: They formalize their longstanding relationship by finally tying the knot (with plenty of bridal angst beforehand). Meantime, older wealthy couple Joanne and Larry (Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan) grapple with gusto. She’s loud and pushy; he’s unflappably amiable and affectionate. Somehow, they meet in the middle, and that’s where they make their home.
The final pair, Jenny and David (Teresa Winner Blume and Todd Yard) seem like the easiest match. She steps out of her comfort zone to please him; he modulates his behavior to accommodate her. They share the least interesting dynamic, but the sweetest one.
From his perch in perpetual singledom, Robert can assess each facet of their complicated shared lives. But that doesn’t mean his own life is as simple as his married friends imagine. Robert has any number of girlfriends, three of whom we meet. April (Adrianne Hick) is a ditzy flight attendant; Marta (Carla Martinez) is wry and self-confident; Kathy (Maria LaRossa) is the one who got away. But deeper currents are in motion, too. There’s one musical number that makes it obvious Robert looks upon his married friends, at least once in a while, with the eye of a window shopper. If he could, he’d create his own bride from scratch, using select attributes from Amy, Jenny, Joanne, Sara and Susan as his raw materials. Until the right one comes along, though, he’ll have to make do with a different kind of “for better and for worse”: The fleeting, but intense, connection (illustrated by a ballet dance and given a comic twist by Robert having forgotten his bedmate’s name), and the occasional romantic misfire, like the embarrassing and funny anecdote Robert shares in which he nips out to get supplies for a steamy assignation but then forgets how to get back to the hotel.
“Company” started out as a series of short plays by George Furth. Those plays then became the basis for the musical, and the resulting stitched-together quality lends the show an additional sense of complication and chaos. There’s no real plot, but there’s plenty of incident — and lots of spirited humor. By contrast, the set — cool blue colors and rectilinear lines — creates a rational space for the play’s irrational narrative shape to tumble around in (not to mention framing choreographer Rachel Bertone’s imaginative dance steps). The live orchestra is concealed from sight, but under musical director Catherine Stornetta their every note sounds out clear and bright. Director Spiro Veloudos doesn’t try to force the book’s inconsistencies — or the subject matter’s inevitable spines and wrinkles — into bland smoothness, but allows for an honest and forthright interpretation. No, marriage isn’t easy, but neither is being by oneself. Yes, the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but that’s the nature of just about everything in human life. The material is disciplined, but not corseted: Veloudos allows the play to breathe, creating fun and poignancy as he does so.
The show’s ironic upshot is, of course, that Robert is already sort of married — to all his married friends, that is. They adore him, and they suffocate him; they uplift him, and they celebrate him. In one clarifying moment defined by Bertone’s lively choreography, Robert stands above the others, looking like a conductor (or maybe a puppetmaster), but at another juncture, seeing how they all slip instinctively into paired routines, a dejected Robert drifts out of the crowd to stand, alone, at the back. For all its joys and reassurances, being a spouse can sometimes be a lonely business. It’s much the same, evidently, when you’re the single guy who’s keeping his friends in good company.
“Company” continues through Oct. 9 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For tickets and more information, visit their website.