Supposedly Steven Sondheim is some sort of musical theater genius. But from the two shows I have seen that prominently feature his name on the marquee (Into the Woods being the other one of these, that being a show that was completely derailed by a terribly-written second act featuring the most painfully obvious overarching metaphor I have ever had the misfortune of being exposed to), I will dispute that claim with anyone who cares to get into an unwinnable argument likely to leave both parties angry. Now, it is true that my issues may not be strictly with Sondheim, as I believe he sticks to writing the music and/or lyrics of his shows, not the scripts, which is where the majority of the fault lies. To this I say: tough. Either write it yourself or find a better scriptwriter. Odds are they'll all work for food, so cost is unlikely to matter. Go for the quality.
As you may have figured out, I recently saw a Sondheim piece. Company, to be specific, showing at Renegade Theater in what I'm sure the tourism department refers to as beautiful downtown Duluth. As you may also have figured out, it is not overly good. In fact, it fails on almost all counts. Perhaps the music was amazing. Whatever. Don't care.
More to the point, Company revolves around the central character Bobby, a man whose name is repeated a minimum of 5 million times by the various cast members. Bobby has problems, and we (the audience) are lucky enough to get to see them play out. You see, Bobby is unmarried and seems to be somewhere around his thirties, at an age where most of his friends have settled down. This makes him the titular company when he comes over for dinner, which he seems to do with great regularity. Beyond saving vast amounts of money on Bobby's food bill, this allows us a glimpse into multiple short, comedic marriage-related set pieces, which we shall discuss shortly. It also gives us some insight into Bobby, apparently quite the Lothario, as the parade of names his friends throw out as past romantic foils attests. But as things go on, we learn that Bobby actually really wishes to be married, he just hasn't found the right girl (Actually, this seems to be the only problem Bobby has. I shouldn't have pluralized that earlier. My bad). To show this, we are treated to scenes involving three romantic matches, ranging from recent to current. Two are presented as dimwitted (Technically I suppose one was more of a post-hippy stoner idiot, but I have no qualms about lumping them both under this banner), while the other one is never given more than a couple lines, leaving her a completely forgettable and unused character. If these are the types of women Bobby finds himself spending his times with while secretly yearning to be married then he is most certainly doing it wrong. Fortunately for the play as a whole (And audience by extension), the writers decided that this was all the characterization Bobby would be given in two and a half hours. This leaves us with, not a main character, but an utterly unconvincing piece of furniture who exists solely for the reason of giving us access to a number of marriage-centric vignettes, which occupy the bulk of the play.
These are certainly the foremost strength of the play, primarily the first scene, which is outright hilarious at points. After the opening high this brings, however, the rest could be safely skipped by an efficiency-minded theatregoer without missing a beat. The only impression these give off in the end are to repeatedly say that married people sure are wacky. This concept comes very close to matching in overall profundity Sondheim's follow-up masterpiece, Women Be Shoppin'. What we have here is an empty shell of a play, with a vacant hole where the lead should be, and nothing of any substance to say. It feels as though someone involved wrote a couple of the marriage pieces, showed them to someone who encouraged him to write more, then gave it a thin concept to try to tie it all together without bothering to put any effort into it. Then songs were tacked on at the end for no possible comprehensible reason, as many of them seem completely awkwardly shoehorned into a near-total void of a script that somehow still doesn't make room for the music. Some of the transitions are worse than mine have been so far here. I'm sure that the music is excellent, and I'm simply missing Sondheim's brilliance here. But you know what? Once he bothers to learn to write, I'll see if I can be bothered to care about his songs. Until then, I remain thoroughly unimpressed.