Arts & Culture

With Sterling Direction, Upstart Productions’ Company Embodies What Makes Stephen Sondheim’s Play Timeless

Not only does it inform the cast’s performances, but its stripping down of the play’s setting to its barest elements underscores the universality and timelessness of its message.
IMAGE JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS
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Let’s get this out of the way, first: Stephen Sondheim’s Company wouldn’t have been written today the way it was written back in 1970. The musical is, in every which way, composed of material written by a white male in 1970s New York. A Catholic has a panic attack over the prospect of marrying a Jew. A middle-aged woman extols the virtues of divorce. Homosexuality is a secret played up for laughs.

The play is also, at times, a little too traditional in its concepts of romantic relationships—strictly heterosexual and only made complete by marriage—but again, it’s a product of its time. Back then, these were the only relationships most people would accept in mainstream media.

In fact, Company is so distanced from the realities of 21st Century Metro Manila that it would take a director who really, really gets the spirit of Sondheim’s work to make it relevant to today’s local audiences.

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And boy, does Topper Fabregas get it.

Upstart Productions’ run of Company cuts to the core of the material so well, it’s a shame audiences only get two weekends to enjoy it. Fabregas’ decision to use a minimalist set, staged in the round, transforms the play’s “New York” from concrete jungle to concept, letting us focus on what really makes each relationship tick. For a play questioning the human need for love, it’s a choice that allows the material to transcend its original settings.

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The cast of Company on stage.
Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

OJ Mariano plays Bobby, a 35-year old single man who feels the pressure to settle down, despite his inability to commit to a relationship. He works out his issues through a series of conversations with his closest friends, who all happen to be married couples. Learning from their examples—both positive and negative—he begins to understand why, for all the trouble it brings to a person’s life, we all feel that need to find someone to love.

Mariano is at his best when Bobby gets to sing. While he tends to play the character’s speaking moments a little too tentatively—one might question why Bobby’s friends are all rooting for him in the first place—he explodes out of his shell during musical moments. His rendition of “Being Alive” is both grand and earnest, balancing sheer gravitas with brave vulnerability. The number is one of the production’s five biggest reasons to watch.

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OJ Mariano as lead character Bobby
Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

Cathy Azanza-Dy’s Amy gives us perhaps the most breath-taking one. Her performance of “Getting Married Today”—a song infamous for its difficulty—is near-flawless, from her delivery of its frenetic, panic-induced lyrics; to the animated facial expressions with which she punctuates every note. Amy’s wedding jitters are hilarious, exhausting, and heartfelt.

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo plays the acerbic Joanne as though the role were written for her. It’s far too easy to portray the character in unlikeable fashion, and yet Lauchengco-Yulo manages to find a sliver of tenderness hiding underneath all the snark. “The Ladies Who Lunch,” her mocking ode to bourgeois women of similar stature, carries a tremendous amount of complexity within its performance, stirring guilt, bitterness, regret—and even a little tenderness—into its venomous lyrics.

In sharp contrast to Joanne is Maronne Cruz’s April, a self-confessed bimbo flight attendant who falls for Bobby. Once again, Cruz shows audiences why she’s one of local theater’s best comedic actresses, crafting a fully formed individual out of what could have been mere caricature. Her April goes beyond comic relief, and becomes one of the play’s most sympathetic characters by the time the band plays “Barcelona.”

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Bobby (Mariano) and April (Cruz) share the stage
Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

The most fun scene in the entire production, however, has to belong to Sweet Plantado-Tiongson and Joel Trinidad. As married couple Sarah and Harry, the two are given an opportunity to flex their muscles in a scene peppered with bouts of physical comedy, and they absolutely deliver. Their karate demonstrations will have audiences cackling not just over their antics, but also because their chemistry together makes it all work so well.

The rest of the play is filled with other notable moments, not least of which is Bobby’s conversation with Jill Peña’s Kathy in a quiet little park in the East Fifties. Peña draws out the poignancy of the entire scene, and makes its bittersweet conclusion painful in its sincerity. Caisa Borromeo’s hippie Marta is an idealistic dervish, and is portrayed with sheer joyousness by the actor. When the two team up with Cruz in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, a musical berating of Bobby, it’s Broadway showmanship in its purest form.

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Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

Bianca Lopez not only brings her impressive operatic pipes to “Getting Married Today”, but also creates genuinely adorable moments when her Jenny tries marijuana for the first time. James Uy’s golden voice cuts through with clarity every time his Paul belts a tune, and Michael Williams—paired once again with Lauchengco-Yulo—as Larry is a perfectly patient foil to the caustic Joanne.

There were, however, a few missed opportunities in other areas of the show. Though Ariel Reonal and Nicky Triviño play their Peter and Susan competently enough, their inconsistent accent work ends up being a little distracting. Chino Veguillas’ David, on the other hand, is charming on his own, but lets himself get swallowed up by Lopez’s Jenny in their scene with Bobby.

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The team behind Company.
Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the performance this reviewer watched came in the form of faulty microphones. Sondheim’s songs are incredibly complex, with multiple layers that demand perfect harmony. In the reviewed showing, several mics malfunctioned in the middle of two company numbers, and its negative impact on how the ensemble sounded was very noticeable. It should be noted, however, that these errors occurred on opening night; audiences can be confident that all mic issues have been sorted out since then.

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The cast at curtain call.
Photo by JAYPEE MARISTAZA / UPSTART PRODUCTIONS.

Again, it’s Fabregas’ direction that ultimately makes this production well-worth the audience’s time. Not only does it inform the cast’s performances, but its stripping down of the play’s setting to its barest elements underscores the universality and timelessness of its message. Upstart Productions’ Company mentions New York in its lines, but it speaks to a city-less audience. Sondheim may have written it in the late 60s, but its views on love—the ups, the downs, its sorry-grateful spirit, and its necessity to the human experience—are cross-generational. And the music? It’ll have you singing and dancing on the way home, no matter where or when you’re from, thanks to Rony Fortich’s musical direction.

Then again, this is Sondheim, one of the biggest reasons people fall in love with musical theater in the first place; that’s practically a given.

“Company” runs only until this weekend, on September 20, 21, and 22, 2019 at the Globe Auditorium, Maybank Performing Arts Theater, BGC. Tickets are available via Ticketworld.

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Marco Sumayao
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