My friend just finished coaching a season of rec league basketball for 10-year-olds, kids who can’t maintain a dribble and miss 90% of their free throws. Despite his best efforts to get them to work on fundamentals, he couldn’t stop them from regularly hoisting up three-pointers even though they were rarely able to get the ball anywhere near the hoop.
Call it the Steph Curry effect. If you don’t know, Curry is a little freak of nature who’s changed the NBA over the last decade by shooting with abandon from beyond — often way beyond — the arc. It’s a wildly entertaining style that’s helped his Golden State Warriors win four championships.
Problem is, if you can’t make a significant percentage of such shots (Curry has a career 3P% of .428), you hurt your team by playing this way. You have to know your strengths/weaknesses and act accordingly.
Stephen Sondheim musicals are like Steph Curry/Warriors basketball: there’s a high degree of difficulty, and they can fail miserably without the right talent.
Alas, Long Beach Playhouse simply has not amassed anywhere near the talent to pull off Sondheim’s Company, seemingly blinded to their own limitations by ambition and love.
Clearly, Artistic Director Sean Gray loves him some Sondheim. Including Company, three of the 12 shows he’s helmed at the Playhouse have been Sondheim. I missed Assassins but caught Sweeney Todd: it was, er, not Warriors basketball, without a single player on the roster able to capably sing his/her role and a three-piece band painfully failing to approximate Sondheim’s chamber-orchestra score.
The good news is that Company — a meditation on intimacy and avoidance through the eyes of just-turned-35 Robert (Cris Cortez) as he considers his single life in contrast to those of his married friends — is not that bad. Despite vocal and physical shortcomings, the cast is spirited. Highlights include Colleen McCandless, Sasha Badia, and Carole Louise delivering a tight “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”; Mabel Schreffler managing the nearly impossible diction of “Getting Married Today”; and some nice blocking here and there making use of the entire Mainstage Theatre to spread out the individual parts of Sondheim’s dense harmonies.
The bad news? Many of Sweeney Todd’s problems are reanimated in Company, starting with the music itself. Although this time Gray and musical director Stephen Olear have enough musicians (six) to pull off the score in play, they’re simply not the right musicians with the right equipment and mixing. Horns regularly hit sour notes, violin ranges from pitchy to out of tune to seemingly random (strings are always a problem in Long Beach Playhouse musicals), and drums are muddy and often out-of-sync even on simple 4/4 pulses. Clearly, blame here lies not just with the musicians but also with Olear, who handles the keyboard that is the center of the Company score. With all these drags on the orchestration and a piano setting where glissandos sound like shit, it’s sometimes hard to know what to make of his playing, but there notable shortcomings include “Another Hundred People”, where Olear inscrutably swaps the piano for a harpsichord setting employed to such convoluted effect that the singer doesn’t stand a chance.
While there is no doubt that the music drags the singers into dubious territory they might otherwise avoid, there’s no question that, once again, Gray is staging a challenging show with vocal talent that doesn’t quite fit the bill, at least not for the way he and Olear have directed them to sing. There’s a long history in top-shelf musical theatre (Broadway, West End) where actors triumphed despite vocal shortcomings — Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, for example, or Anne Reinking in the 1996 revival of Chicago. The key is to dial the performance to the vocalist, leaning into the acting rather than the notes when needed. At the very least, Gray and Olear have not done that enough with this cast.
For a company that does not specialize in musical theatre, Long Beach Playhouse has been doing an awful lot of it in recent years. Occasionally it turns out fine: last season Olear was musical director on a Sister Act that was downright charming.
But there’s something to be said for knowing your limitations. I can’t blame anyone for loving Stephen Sondheim or wanting to stretch themselves by trying him on for size. But if you’re going to take it public, a critic’s job is to report on the fit. To that end, I’m sorry to say Long Beach Playhouse is way too small for Sondheim.
“COMPANY” @ LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE THRU AUGUST 6
Time: Fri. – Sat. 8pm, Sun 2PM
Location: 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach 90804
Details: 562-494-1014 – lbplayhouse.org