With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, Company has both dazzled and baffled audiences since its conception. It has a non-linear structure, a sketchily detailed leading man and no real story but a handful of episodes that argue the merits of entering a committed relationship or staying unattached.
The Actor's Express production, directed and choreographed by John Ruocco, takes palpable pleasure in staging Company without resolving its problems.
The action centers around the 35th birthday party of Robert (James Donegan), a single Manhattanite all but smothered by attention from his married buddies. They and Robert have an odd dynamic; the wives are inclined to mother him (as in the song "Poor Baby"), the husbands envy his freedom to play the field (as in "Have I Got a Girl For You") and all try matchmaking for him.
Between the songs are sketches with Robert observing how the couples interact, from the perky pair (Brit Whittle and Marcie Millard) who seem to have found domestic bliss in divorce, to the spouses (Judith Franklin and Kevin Harry) who get the giggles and give up secrets when sampling some marijuana. Jennifer Levison and Actor's Express artistic director Wier Harman amusingly play a bickering duo who taunt each other (she's on a diet, he's on the wagon) until they start literally sparring karate-style.
Robert's friends don't always set a great example, with the oft-married Joanne (a refreshingly fiery Kathleen McManus) all but dripping with acidic cynicism. Robert takes pleasure in his freedom, displayed when his three girlfriends croon "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," a bouncy number written like an Andrews Sisters pastiche. But the bittersweet, post-coital "Barcelona" (a delicate duet with Donegan and Laurie Strickland) suggests that free love is no substitute for extended companionship. In songs like "Someone is Waiting" and "Marry Me a Little," Robert imagines that his future mate may share traits with his woman friends: "A Susan sort of Sarah, a Jennyish Joanne."
Company's score features some of Sondheim's finest melodies, as well as occasional devices that simply annoy. Off and on through the show the couples call out "Bob-by!" which ends up sounding as persistent and grating as a busy signal. But the play also confirms Sondheim's ability to write lyrics that are truly Shakespearean. In the climactic "Being Alive," Robert sings how he both fears and longs to have "Someone to need me too much / Someone to know you too well / Someone to pull you up short / to put you through hell. ..." There's a similar verbal felicity in "Sorry-Grateful," in which a husband tells him, "You'll always be what you always were."
Putting the show into a Shakespearean equation, Robert is equivalent to Hamlet, with Company hinging on whether he'll make the decision to commit. At the end of Act One, he cries "I'm ready!" in "Marry Me a Little," but strangely, he never seems as ready again. Part of the oddness of Company is that, for a show ostensibly about relationships, Robert's biggest musical moments are his solos, which work like soliloquies.
Donegan is commandingly impressive in these moments, able to sound forceful and intimate simultaneously. He may be a bit too intense at the show's outset (you wonder why he's so worked up over the birthday party), as if he's accustomed to emoting for a larger house, but he's clearly a natural musical lead. The evening's other power voice belongs to Rebecca Blouin, who's so moving in "Another Hundred People," a portrait of lonely-in-a-crowd city life, that you regret she doesn't have more time in the spotlight.
Not counting the pianist and bassist, Company has 14 performers, and the ensemble tends to be loosely likable, though not everyone can hit every note, and some have trouble projecting their voices. Mindy Merchant is very funny with the high-anxiety patter song "Getting Married Today," but the joke, about a fast-talking bride suffering from cold feet, would get twice the laughs were she twice as loud.
Some of the other numbers tend to cheerfully goof on musical conventions, as in "What Would We Do Without You?" in which the couples toot kazoos and Robert bangs cymbals. Alexander Dodge's set expresses this playfulness; it's painted with big magenta squares with many built-in doors, as if inspired by "Laugh-In."
Actors' Express is smart to give Company a touch of zaniness, as the show itself tends to be ambiguous up through the end. There's also a weirdly egocentric quality to Company, as the creators imagine married couples who have nothing better to do than revolve around their single friend. A quirky creation, Sondheim's musical shares some aspects of marriage itself, in which you have to accept the worst in order to enjoy the better.
Company plays through Dec. 22 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m. Sun. plus a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 23 and Dec. 7. $20-$25. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.