Barrington Stage re-examines a Sondheim classic

PITTSFIELD — It's been 17 years since Julianne Boyd first directed Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at her Barrington Stage Company.

Those were the days when BSC was performing at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield. Times certainly have changed since then. Barrington Stage has made a new home for itself in downtown Pittsfield. The world has changed. So has Boyd and so, she said in an e-mail, the time felt right to re-examine this landmark musical.

"I was looking for an upbeat, heartfelt musical that told a personal, contemporary story, the opposite of the grander, larger social issues in 'Ragtime," our first Mainstage show this summer," Boyd wrote. "I also think I have a clearer understanding of the complexity of Sondheim's score now, having directed 'Follies' and "Sweeney Todd.'"

Boyd's production of Sondheim's 1970 musical about a 35-year-old bachelor named Bobby who moves in a circle of five married couples, opens Sunday — after a series of previews — at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, where it is scheduled to run through Sept. 2.

"For me, this show is both funnier and sadder now," Boyd wrote. "It has a much stronger emotional base for me now than it did in 2000. I've seen many more friends navigate marriages in 17 years. Sometimes I feel like Bobby, observing relationships and wondering why some work and some don't."

Her production stars Aaron Tveit in the leading role. His appearance in "Company" marks another reunion of sorts. Tveit — who has made his mark on film, television, and especially on Broadway through his starring roles in "Next to Normal" and "Catch Me If You Can" — starred in Barrington Stage's 2007 second stage production of the musical, "Calvin Berger."

Tveit, who played John Wilkes Booth in a 2014 production of Sondheim's "Assassins" at London's intimate Menier Chocolate Factory, said he couldn't turn down the opportunity to do another Sondheim musical, especially this one.

"Company" opened on Broadway in April 1970 in a production directed by Harold Prince. It was constructed from 11 one-act plays written by George Furth. Under Prince's guidance, Furth revised three of the plays, added two new ones and created the character of Bobby as a way of connecting all the dots. The relationships surrounding Bobby are laced with cynicism, alcohol, drugs, talk of divorce or, at least, separation. The pluses and minuses of marriage are posed against the pluses and minuses of being alone. Those themes resound with Tveit who successfully keeps his private life private.

"I will be turning 34 in a few months," Tveit said during a break in rehearsals at BSC's Wolfson Center on North Street. "All my high school friends are married and have families. My [single] lifestyle may be different than theirs. I'm a romantic and an optimist at heart."

Tveit doesn't see Bobby as being afraid of commitment.

"I think in a very strong way that Bobby is the only romantic in the play," Tveit said. "I think that in Bobby's brain, marriage is equivalent to love and that invites exploration.

"In [the musical's finale] 'Being Alive,' Bobby finally opens himself up to the next things in his life, what will they be?"

He says he and Boyd are in complete agreement.

Boyd said in her e-mail that Tveit has shown throughout rehearsal "an honesty and an understanding of [Bobby] that truly blows me away. He also has an ability to tap into Bobby while singing this glorious score brilliantly and effortlessly."

Tveit says the biggest challenge for him in working on "Company" is the fact that it this a memory piece — some scenes are in his past. Other scenes, scenes in Bobby's present, are played directly to the audience.

"The challenge," he says," is being completely with the other actors at one moment and completely with the audience at others and you have to give 100 percent in both."

Boyd and Tveit are eager to see how their audiences will respond to this material from the 1970s; material Boyd and Tveit believe is as meaningful now as it was then; perhaps moreso.

"Every audience member who comes into the theater comes in with their own thoughts about marriage," Tveit said. "The closer we play to the middle, the closer the audience will come [to fresh insights]."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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