The mention of Ruth Bader Ginsberg answers whether George Furth’s book for his 1970 musical collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, “Company,” has been updated for modern consumption.
The revision could be a matter of trading a name from 40 years ago for one from today, but with a few notable objections, including a ludicrously misjudged fistfight in the middle of a song that celebrates camaraderie, Hunter Foster’s production for Bucks County Playhouse seems to escape the outmoded impression that has plagued most recent stagings of “Company.”
The show that emerges gibes with the laptops and mobile telephones that appear throughout Foster’s production. Even scenes that involve a 30-something sampling pot for the first time, or in which a woman demonstrates her karate mastery, plot lines smacking of two generations past, have a fresh feel that raise the idea that someone, possibly Foster, brushed up Furth’s text and gave it a 21st-century gloss.
The presence of Justin Guarini in the focal role of Bobby, a Manhattan bachelor all his friends are eager to marry off, helps keep BCP’s “Company” amiable and watchable. In several recent turns — an otherwise execrable “Romeo & Juliet” on Broadway and an otherwise lackluster “Paint Your Wagon” for New York’s Encores series — Guarini has stood out as the performer, and character, who exhibited a natural ease yet strong sentimental intensity that brought his audience’s full attention to the stage and illuminated writers’ intentions.
In “Company,” his relaxed aloofness as Bobby adds to the felicity and comedy of each scene. It also shows Guarini’s generosity as a performer. He instinctively yields the stage to “Company’s” large supporting cast when another character is advancing the story while he always makes his presence known as an appreciative observer.
Guarini’s is a Bobby who genuinely and ingenuously likes those good and crazy people, his friends. His unconditional acceptance of their foibles and amusement at their follies gives Foster’s “Company” a warm core of reality. This comes at the expense of some brittle sophistication inherent in Sondheim’s marvelous lyrics, but turns out to be a dividend rather than a detriment or misreading.
The idea that you believe what you’re seeing takes Foster’s production far, especially considering the female cast is about 50 times better than their male counterparts in most sequences. (It isn’t so much that the men are inadequate as that they, with the exception of Guarini, Max Kumangai, and John Caliendo, seem more mannered and “actory” than the women.)
“Company” is a comic look at marriage. One of the reasons Foster has defeated some intrinsic time stamps is by concentrating on characters instead of situations. As Bobby makes the round of his married friends, each couple tries to convince him to court someone and join them in marital bliss or at least to shed his fear of commitment and firm belief that mating foments diminishment and compromise more than expansion and companionship.
Sondheim and Furth comment on the various sides of the marriage ledger. In one song, they say it affects the neighbors you annoy together and children you destroy together. In another men tell Bobby married folk are simultaneously grateful and sorry for their connubial plight. In a third song, the men envy Bobby’s bachelor status and ability to date several women. The women, meanwhile, disapprove of Bobby’s relationship choices as being too dumb or tall enough to be his mother. The dates themselves band to tell Bobby, “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” a Sondheim lyric that is a monument to witty internal rhyme.
Bobby sings about being ready for a mate. He sings about it three times, once in hope he will meet a woman who combines the traits of five best female friends, one in hope of keeping marriage emotionally neutral, and one in plaintive desire to meet the soul mate who can share the frightening journey of “Being Alive.” Foster and BCP are deliciously deft in how they sneak that second number, “Marry Me a Little,” into their show as a rousing first-act closer. (“Marry Me a Little” was cut from the original production of “Company” for being repetitious. Foster’s idea of including it is the better choice.)
As always with Hunter Foster, some ideas are on so grand, and wrongheaded, a scale, they threaten to scuttle the whole works. His “Company” is more in keeping with the disciplined, direct “National Pastime” than his maltreated “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but excesses do prevail. In “Side By Side by Side,” for instance, Foster has Bobby’s good friends socking each other’s jaws and causing assaultive mayhem that borders on abomination, especially as they’re extolling Bobby’s virtues.
Foster also errs by allowing costumer Jennifer Caprio to dress Bobby inappropriately for a wedding scene. While everyone else is wearing tan or light gray, Bobby appears in a maroon velour morning coat, blue jeans, and sneakers. Yes, Guarini is almost always on stage, but some attempt to have him quick-change to match the crowd would have been wise. Caprio’s choices, often harkening more to the 1960s more than to the 1970s or 2015, are generally good, but her dress for Candy Buckley’s Joanne would probably get a vodka stinger splashed in her face.
The wedding Bobby attends is preceded by a breathtaking bravura rendition of the breakneck “Getting Married Today” by a perfectly articulating Kate Weatherhead. Foster or musical director Will Shuler can race some tempi, but Weatherhead makes her speed its own reward.
Laura Jordan is a treat as the marijuana novice who rambles on and giggles while claiming she is unaffected by pot. Jennifer Cody is a delight throughout but particularly in her karate bit with John Bolton. Max Kumangai is funny and open as a man who divorces so he can dabble in gayness. John Caliendo shares Guarini’s knack for the natural. And once again Lorin Latarro devises lively, admirable, gymnastic, eye-popping dances.
“Company” ends with two blockbuster numbers and performances. Candy Buckley is stalwart and riveting in “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch.” Guarini is touching and deserving of empathy in his stirring, tension-filled performance of “Being Alive.”
Company, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, June 21. $29 to $85. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheatre.org.