About halfway through the first act of Student Productions Associations’ staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at LCC’s Blue Door Theatre, I happened upon an idea so absurd it brought on a viciously improper fit of giggles: Imagine adapting one of John Cassavettes’ movies — say, Faces or A Woman Under the Influence — for the stage, and then casting it with nothing but 8-year-old actors. It’s a chilling proposition. Can’t you just see some post-toddler in a bathrobe flailing around like Gena Rowlands, ranting and chain smoking and pulling out her hair, while some kid does his best Peter Falk, crunching on lines like “Mabel is not crazy; she’s unusual” while chasing down his manic wife?
At once fascinating and dreary, SPA’s Company is a strange take on a strange musical — one in which Sondheim, channeling Neil Simon and Elton John, delves into the swinging 1970s, with its bell-bottom jeans, EST-inspired narcissism and burgeoning rate of divorce, American style. The action, such as it is, revolves around Robert (well played by Trevor Eichhorn), a bachelor hounded by his married friends to give up the single life. As Bobby-Robbie-Bob struggles to find meaning in his several relationships, his friends chirp and plead with him like a kind of stoned Greek chorus, urging Robert to couple-up before it’s too late.
Director and choreographer Michael Watkins, acknowledging that Company is indeed an “odd show,” attempts to mine the “Me” decade for relevance to contemporary morals, but the production remains more anthropological than topical. Some of the actors, feeling for groovy, look like fish out of water, though a large share of the blame for this can be chalked up to the exoticism of the material; this is not Sondheim’s best work, and the dated feel of material is unaided by a non-plot (book by George Furth) that makes Fellini’s 8 1/2 look al dente.
And still, there is much to admire in Company. The musical numbers are raw and often exhilarating, accompanied solely by a live piano played by Jim Greenwood (for best results, sit opposite the piano). And the show, in its very strangeness, does cast an odd kind of spell; after the languorous first act, Watkins makes sure things pick up in the second, squeezing whatever catharsis he can find in a handful of expertly choreographed set pieces.
What really elevates this show, however, are the performances of Shannon AJ Coltrane and Cristina Hernandez. As the lanky, seemingly uptight Jenny, Coltrane is a study in restraint, and the scene where she smokes pot for the first time is a flawless riff on comic timing. Hernandez, for her part, plays nervous bride Amy; she delivers a stunning staccato solo, all breathless panic and neuroses, that damn near steals the show.
Company plays through Feb. 16 at LCC’s Blue Door Theatre; $10-$13, call 463-5761.