Two Pianos = Newfound Pleasure​

San Francisco Playhouse’s mixed Company

Winter, 2015

Some, but not all, of the considerable strengths of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company were on display at the San Francisco Playhouse (July 7-Sept. 12, 2015) under the guidance of director Susi Damilano.

The generous quirkiness but genuine panic of Amy was delivered with both energy and humor by Monique Hafen, who created a well-rounded character even before her big number, the tricky vocal patter song “Getting Married Today.” Once she bit into its material, she overcame the audience’s tendency to focus just on the challenge of the tongue-twisting lyric to draw attention to the meaning through an emphasis on action verbs and mouthing silently one of the three “I’m not getting married today!”’s in the song’s ultimate assertion.

Richard Frederick, as Joanne’s latest husband, Larry, gave a hint of the genuine affection underlying his acceptance of her dismissive attitude in the first act, and then brought it into full focus in the second act sequence when he wished Robert the good fortune to find a woman as special as the one he loves. It turned out to be a surprisingly strong match for Stephanie Prentice’s emotional blast that is Joanne’s famous “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

The greatest pleasure of the evening, however, came from music director, pianist and orchestration adaptor Dave Dobrusky’s two-piano reduction of the accompaniment. It worked beautifully, contributing supportive touches at just the right moments and establishing a distinctive sound for this production of a show that Sondheim fans hear fairly frequently, whether in person or through any of the recordings. 

The two-piano accompaniment worked so well because set designers Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott placed the pianos at opposite sides of their set. From the first three notes of the opening vamp, played with two notes from Dobrusky on the audience’s left and one from Ben Prince on the right, the treatment was at once both familiar and sparklingly new.

But for Company to work, any production requires a lead actor who can carry the show on his charming shoulders, connecting the disparate songs and scenes to form a compelling whole. The San Francisco Playhouse had the attractive — but only intermittently charming — Keith Pinto to play Robert. He seemed to turn the charm on and off, which didn’t help an already heavily episodic show.

Most of the time he stuffed both hands into his pants pockets with an “aw-shucks” posture that seemed intended to indicate a youthful charm. It became increasingly distracting, however, as it required a separate motion to remove a hand from a pocket for him to touch something or someone. As it turned out, the longest continuous period of charm happened to be when choreographer Kimberly Richards put a cane in his hands for the Act II opener, “Side by Side by Side.”

The production lacked both the “Tick-Tock” dance and the “indecent proposal” scene in which Michael Scott Wells’ Peter would have raised the issue of a gay experience with Robert. (That dialogue is not included in the currently licensed script from Music Theatre International.) Even so, the show felt long. Sondheim’s score determines the pacing of the musical numbers, but the dialogue scenes are more at the discretion of the director, and it seemed that Damilano allowed some of these to drag.

Another problem might have improved during the run: On opening night the only couple that seemed to actually be a couple was Velina Brown’s Sarah and Christopher Reber’s Harry. They exchanged glances, knowing expressions and occasional touches that felt natural without distracting from other scenes. The other couples, however, seemed to share their space together as individual actors taking their marks between their songs or lines.

English and Scott’s multi-level set gave each couple its own turf, making it simple to keep the connections straight. But staging Sarah and Harry’s karate competition on a platform without a railing seemed to draw attention to the artificiality of it all, as those in the audience wondered more about the safety of the actors than the outcome of the competition.

Despite these shortcomings, Dobrusky’s twin piano backing pulled the elements together nicely. [TSR]

Note: Mr. Dobrusky reports that half of the two-piano reduction was the work of the gentleman at the other piano - Ben Prince - even though only Dobrusky was listed on the program.