With a cast filled with some of Nashville's most talented stage performers, director Paul J. Cook's version of Company-now onstage at The Keeton Theatre in a sparkling new production from Circle Players-is brimming over with theatrical riches. But if you had to pick just one from among this cadre of showstopping stars, I'd pick one Ms. Debbie Kraski, whose Joanne in as memorable as any you might have seen, and as heartbreakingly genuine as any you might ever have hoped to witness.
That's not to say, of course, that the remainder of the cast is shabby or lackluster. On the contrary, Cook's cast is very nearly perfect and the overall production is winningly appealing. It's not without a few minor shortcomings-the "time" of the plot seems particularly hazy and the decision to keep all The Players upstage in Bobby's apartment while the rest of the musical's scenes are played out downstage at times proves distracting-but it is a charming iteration of Stephen Sondheim's emotionally satisfying musical which shattered many preconceived notions about the mechanics of musical theater when it debuted in 1970 and which today continues to engage audiences to great effect. And what might once have been controversial is expected and commonplace.
But back to Kraski: Her Joanne is witty and acerbic (just as George Furth wrote her), but Kraski very knowingly invests in the character a great deal of heart, with an undercurrent of emotion and feeling running through each of her showstopping moments in the spotlight. Thanks to Kraski, "The Little Things You Do Together" imparts much more dramatic and comic heft, and her tour-de-force performance of the iconic "The Ladies Who Lunch" is delivered with such ferocity that it rivets you to your seat: the anguish and anger of Joann's evisceration of café society's relegation of the older woman to an unfair place at the cocktail table is deeply felt and convincingly sung. It's definitely a "wow!" moment in a production filled with them.
Set in the Manhattan apartment of Bobby (played by Nashville theater's consummate everyman Mike Baum, who seems born to the role), on the occasion of his 35th birthday, Company brings five couples together to celebrate the birthday boy and to encourage him to find the right woman, to settle down and to get married, which is, they maintain, the only possible course of action for a bachelor of his vintage. Bobby, looking on the marital states of his friends with the practiced eye of the impartial observer, doesn't quite get the rush to judgment his friends are pushing him toward-although he ultimately admits, in the quintessentially inspiring "Being Alive," his own need to bond deeply and irrevocably with another human being-but is eager to comprehend how their lives are made different, for better or worse, by marriage.
Baum is at his charming best as Bobby, his focus allowing the audience to feel a part of the onstage action and his stage presence ensuring their rapt attention throughout the show.
The lives of his crazy, married friends are juxtaposed against Bobby's own relationships with three very different young women in his life-Marta, April and Kathy (played, respectively, by Erica Haines, Melodie Madden Adams and Stacie Riggs)-and the scenes with Bobby and "his women" fairly bristle with a necessary tension that makes his inability to make that ultimate decision all the more realistic and more involving for the audience. Each of Bobby's girlfriends is played with such conviction and energy that each is unique in her own way and it's doubtful that Cook could have cast the three roles any better. Haines is slightly left-of-center as the outspoken Marta (she's the one I suspect Bobby spends his 35th birthday in pursuit of), performing "Another Hundred People" with richness and deptH. Adams is wonderfully screwball as April, her self-assured delivery of her lines offering a master class to fledgling actors in the audience. And Riggs is sexy and attractive as Kathy (who most likely is number two on Bobby's list of possible fiancées). The three women are introduced via the delightful "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," which remains a favorite among a score filled with songs that are now musical theater classics.