Sep 30, 2019

Manila’s (unofficial) Sondheim Festival just kicked off a few weeks ago with “Company: A Musical Comedy,” staged by Upstart Productions and directed by Gawad Buhay awardee Topper Fabregas. 

The musical, which was first produced in 1970, may well be a landmark piece of theater as it covers some pretty universal themes involving adult relationships—common, upper-middle class problems not many productions actually touch on. Not to mention the music and lyrics (which Stephen Sondheim won Tonys for when the musical debuted), remain to be some of the most noteworthy songs in theater.

Upstart’s production of “Company” is a stellar collaboration of some of the most notable names in theater, such as OJ Mariano and Sweet Plantado-Tiongson of the vocal group The Company (which is actually named after the musical, the two revealed), Upstart Productions’ Joel Trinidad, Nicky Triviño, Ariel Reonal, Bianca Lopez, Chino Veguillas, Cathy Azanza-Dy, James Uy, Caisa Borromeo, Jill Peña, Maronne Cruz, Michael Williams, and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, who interestingly also starred in the first Manila production of “Company” by Repertory Philippines in 1997. 

Unlike other versions of the musical, Upstart’s production sets the story on a plain, rectangular set, with seats surrounding the stage. It’s unique par the course of this musical; the stage is bare but remains to be creative with the use of storage blocks-cum-benches that the cast constantly moves around the stage as scenes change and develop. Despite the simplicity, it’s easy to follow, and allows the audience to focus on the characters. (It’s also a challenge for the cast, to not only act out their characters, but to make the setting clear despite the lack of a detailed set.)

A few of us at Nolisoli caught the shows and, in the spirit of company (“thoughts shared, souls bared,” and all), discuss some bits of this Manila staging that caught our interest.

 

Initial thoughts

Pauline: I can still hear “Bobby… Bobby… Bobobobobobby…” ringing in my head. Vocally, technically, this is such a strong cast.

Christian: (Laughs) During the break, I went out to get air, tapos may two ladies who were saying something like, “It’s nothing ground-breaking. It’s monotonous at best…”

P: Were the ladies old or young? 

C: They were ladies… who lunch. (Laughs)

P: Aya, weigh in as a Sondheim fan!

Zofiya: I wished they did a female Bobbie.

C: Same! Man Bobby was bland, but I think that works to the story’s advantage, too, to center the narrative on his friends.

P: I wouldn’t really say bland, but maybe that’s the point, so that we can put or project ourselves onto Bobby and kind of see through him, the lives of his married friends. But anyway I was recently listening to the 2007 album of “Company,” and it sounds pretty similar (to this version).

Z: I watched with my friend who’s also a Sondheim fan, and we’re both so used to a female Bobbie that it was a weird adjustment to make. (And on that note about it not being ground-breaking), I get it, but in my opinion, I’m tired of plays setting out to be groundbreaking anyways?

P: True. And anyway, wasn’t the point of “Company” to focus on “normal middle-class people problems” anyway? 

 

Stand-out numbers

Z: As a huge Sondheim fan (you now know where I stand vis-à-vis Sondheim v ALW), I was very predictably looking forward to “Getting Married Today” and “Ladies Who Lunch”—the former because Beth Howland sending death glares at Sondheim at the first recording is etched into my brain, and the latter because I’ve spent way too many times watching the Ladies in Red medley.

I’ve always already resonated with “Getting Married Today” as an anxious wreck with commitment issues (broken family kids, unite), but actually seeing it within the context of the play drove in the song’s point even more. I always knew Amy was having a nervous breakdown; I didn’t quite understand that she was also sabotaging her own happiness. I’m tempted to wish that Cathy Azanza-Dy’s rendition be stronger, more frantic, more obviously a panic attack, but it is one of the hardest songs to perform so I won’t.

Menchu. Lauchengco. Yulo, though. She absolutely steals the show as Joanne. From the moment she walked in with her flowing dress pants and flip hair, I was transfixed. I don’t know how to explain it, but even the way she sits exudes Joanne’s special brand of bitterness, sarcasm, and alcoholism. Her version of “Ladies Who Lunch” is biting and painful and vulnerable and oh my god I wish I could get a cast recording just for that

Can she please keep playing Joanne; she radiates so much of Patti Lupone’s energy when she does it, it’s crazy.

 

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COMPANY raves from theater faves!⁣ ⁣ “… a brilliant cast of the Philippines’ brightest theater actors” — Rachel Alejandro⁣ ⁣ “A production packed with the talent of some of the best… in Philippine Theatre” — Jaime del Mundo⁣ ⁣ “Sleek, polished, and and very cleverly designed” — Sheila Francisco⁣ ⁣ “[The] band is marvellous. The ensemble singing is superb… The ensemble numbers prove how many gems we have in Philippine theater.” — Reb Atadero ⁣ ⁣ “Beautiful staging and a powerhouse cast!” — Gian Magdangal⁣ ⁣ “[E]legant, exuberant and thoroughly resonant… not to be missed… a truly satisfying evening at the theater!” —Floy Quintos⁣ ⁣ “A showcase for every member of the 14-person cast… inventive arena staging… all production elements are topnotch.” — Dennis Marasigan⁣ ⁣ But don’t take their word for it! Catch the last five shows of COMPANY: A MUSICAL COMEDY from September 20 to 22 at the BGC Arts Center. For tickets, call Ticketworld (8919999) or Upstart (09178116156).⁣ ⁣ #companyupstart2019 #upstartcompany2019

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P: I totally agree. “Getting Married Today” was an instant fave for me the moment I heard Cathy Azanza-Dy though. I was amused (especially at those punchlines on being Catholic) but also felt for her. I know people who find it hard to accept that they can and deserve happiness, too, so to hear her Amy talk about it made me think of those friends. (“Remember Paul? You know, the man I’m going to marry/But I’m not, because I wouldn’t ruin anyone/As wonderful as he is.”) It was a little stab to the heart.

As for Menchu’s “Ladies Who Lunch”—I do agree it was such a powerful number. Perhaps the most powerful in the entire show. Of course, I can only wish that I had a better view of the stage (for most of the show, to be honest. Apparently front row isn’t automatically best for this staging…)

But going back a little, I also really just want to talk about “The Little Things You Do Together” (and the song after, “Sorry-Grateful”), too. Harry (Joel Trinidad) and Sarah (Sweet Plantado-Tiongson) were hilarious. Plus I just found it interesting how the different couples contributed to painting the various images of marriage and relationships.

 

And on the topic of relationships…

C: I’m surprised Bobby has that many friends and that he’s maintained these relationships even as an adult. Is this a testament to how great a person Bobby is?

P: Maybe. But you know what I noticed, I’m only partial to some of the couples. Like, maybe it’s because not all of them get a “detailed” backstory, so I’m not as invested. For example, Susan and Peter were potentially interesting as a couple and as individual characters, but it wasn’t delved into as deeply as I would’ve liked. Same goes for Jenny and David. For the girlfriends, we get a lot of April (I was about to say Dawn, but I realized, oops, wrong Maronne Cruz role, wrong musical). But we don’t get much of Kathy and Marta. We know what they’re like and what their ideas are, but where did they come from? (Or maybe I just literally didn’t see them, if a bench or another character was blocking the view. Again, my front row seat wasn’t most ideal after all…)

Though I do get that it’s because this is mostly just a series of vignettes.

C: I’m also curious what binds them all together as friends, considering that they come together for a surprise party, and yet they’re all so different. Or maybe Bobby’s the common thread? He’s like the baby of all the couples. Like in the song “What Would We Do Without You,” they mention ’yung pakinabang ni Bobby as a single friend. May pinagsasabihan sila ng secrets about their spouses.

About marriage though, it’s nice that it’s contradictory. That it’s not just positive or negative. 

P: Yeah, the different couples do contribute to giving a more… holistic, perhaps, view of marriage. In a way, as a single person, I felt much like Bobby looking into those relationships, actually. 

C: Even divorce. Much like marriage, we have a singular view of what a divorce looks like—conflicting ex-couple fighting over custody or what little they have. So Peter and Susan were interesting in that sense. They still lived together and were actually happy. Shows that marriage isn’t for everybody, and you just find what works for you.

 

Bobby’s girlfriends

P: Okay, can we also talk about Bobby’s girlfriends, though. I don’t know, but it doesn’t appear to me that Bobby has a type. Oh, but then again, the problem, probably, is also that Bobby’s trying to look for qualities of his women friends in his lovers…?

C: Si Bobby kasi sinasabi ready siya pero hindi lang naman ’yun ’yun. Like committing is not just realizing you are good enough a person, or ready to commit. It shows in various moments especially around his lovers, that he is not ready intrapersonally, it’s something that he needs to work on if he wants to settle down. But then again, one can argue that one can never be ready? I just sense (Aya agrees) that Bobby doesn’t really know what he wants, that’s what.

 

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Reception of Bobby

C: I cannot stop thinking about how different I would have perceived Bobby’s character if it were played by a woman (which I just found out, there’s a version of). I wonder if I would still find him needlessly petty. His endless bemoaning of his singledom, relative to his friends’ expectation of him getting tied down, compared to the pressure of being a woman of the same stature and being pressured to be married, is but a small nudging. 

Could I have related more to the character of Bobby had it been a female one? Maybe. Because then the other factors would have been considered, there would have been more complexities like that there is a greater society-imposed burden for women to find partners at that age—

P: And Amy actually hints at that, right? When she mentions she’s only getting married now and she’s 31.

C: Women are said to be ticking time bombs because of their physiology. What did Bobby the man had to lose from not being “accompanied” apart from his existential dread and perceived self-importance?

P: Okay, so I just listened to the female West End version, and now I’m also convinced I might have been able to relate to her better. It probably also would’ve felt more now if they had gone with a Bobbie instead of Bobby.

But in hindsight, what I find interesting about OJ Mariano’s Bobby is that he’s not portrayed as the typical popular guy who obviously gets all the ladies. He’s portrayed as a normal guy with some sort of charm, I guess. He’s a nice guy, I guess, which is probably why he gets with these girls. Maybe he’s just a big ol’ softboy. A 35-year-old softboy.

Upstart Productions’ staging of “Company: A Musical Comedy” proves to be at the very least, an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of human relationships. Though it’s a story from the ’70s, there’s a tinge of immediacy (people all asking when are you planning to settle down? Don’t tell me this doesn’t happen here, in the present.), but that’s not to say it’s not dated either. 

While the literal staging (as in the set) may have been progressive, the adaptation of the story could’ve been pushed a little more (West End set a bar). Nevertheless, it does remain to be a beautiful showcase of musical talent—one the Philippine theater scene is so rich in, if “Company’s” company is any indication.

 

“Company: A Musical Comedy” is set for a rerun next year. Stay tuned for updates.

 

Photos courtesy of Upstart Productions

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TAGS: company: a musical comedy Musical musical theater stephen sondheim theater upstart productions