REVIEW: Poignant, Boisterous, Fantastic “Company” is Great Company at Moline’s Black Box
The Davenport church for which I play piano had a brief dedication of lovingly handmade quilts Sunday morning that really hit home.
The wonderful, open-hearted pastor (Clark Olson-Smith) said these colorful quilts – to be donated around the world – are each so much
more than just a piece of material, but are an expression of love. “There is no way for us to imagine the power and effect an act of love can have on a person’s life — how you can use something as small as a quilt to radiate your love from us to the world. May these be used in your service and become blessings for all those who receive them.”
A similar feeling struck me recently during the opening night of the new Black Box Theatre production of the landmark 1970 musical “Company.” In the timeless story, Robert — an eternal bachelor and the favorite sun around which frantic, neurotic planets orbit — specialized in social distancing long before it was fashionable (and recommended).
For its first musical in 26 months, the great “Company” is literally great company and an expression of love – emanating consistently from both the talent-packed 14 performers on that long, narrow stage, and the audiences who are thrilled to be in the intimate, 60-seat venue with them.
Due to this never-ending global pandemic, the musical’s actors all wore clear, plastic face shields (far preferable to cloth masks in both vocal projection and facial expression) and state of Illinois mandates required us in the audience to be masked as well. While the face shields were distracting at first, you get used to watching the tremendously committed performers and marvel at their wizardry and energy. They can’t not do this show, and the power and effect this dazzling act of love had on my life were incalculable.
Of course (as a performer and musician myself), I wished I could have been on stage up there with them, and fortunately, I have previously shared the stage with many of the “Company” cast.
BBT co-owner David Miller – who also helmed the last Black Box musical, Sondheim’s “Assassins,” in August 2019 – capably directs the proceedings here with care and conviction. Choreographing the production is area theater veteran Beth Marsoun, who choreographed “Mamma Mia” at Quad City Music Guild this summer (which featured Miller on stage). And the four-person “Company” pit is led by the truly gifted pianist Randin Letendre, who also music directed “Assassins.”
I had the time of my life playing John Hinckley (who shot President Reagan in 1981) in that 2019 production, and the new “Company” cast includes three actors from that unforgettable show (about all the misfits who assassinated or tried to kill a president).
“Company” is led by BBT veteran Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt as Bobby (who played Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald); with Emmalee Hilburn (who was Sara Jane Moore) as Sarah, and Brant Peitersen (who was Sam Byck) as David. And my “Assassins” scene partner Sara Nicole Wegener was the amazing graffiti artist for the new “Company.”
The perfect cast features Joe Urbaitis as Harry (who shines in “Sorry-Grateful,” about the odd duality of happiness and regret in marriage); Jacqueline Isaacson & Daniel Williams as the young Susan and Peter (who inexplicably break up); Jennifer Cook Gregory as Jenny (David’s wife); Jenny Winn & Michael Alexander as Amy and Paul; Wendy Czekalski & Mark Ruebling as Joanne and Larry — and rounded out with the trio of Robert’s girlfriends April, Marta and Kathy, played by Abbey Donohoe, Noel Jean Huntley & Abby Bastian.
The story — that centers on the pursuit, possibilities, and pitfalls of relationships — revolves around Robert (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, let alone marriage), the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Unlike most book musicals, which follow a clearly delineated plot, “Company” is a concept musical composed of short vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, linked by a celebration for Robert’s 35th birthday.
In Moline, the show was originally supposed to be done in October 2020, and four of the original cast are part of the new one – including Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt as Bobby. Since spring 2020, BBT has focused on very small-cast, non-musical plays, including radio-style productions at the 60-seat, three-row venue.
It is such an exhilarating, satisfying relief to see a full musical back on this vital, necessary stage and everyone appears to be giving it their absolute all. Hilburn and Peitersen are especially accomplished, adept comic actors. One of the first scenes in “Company” showcases Sarah physically fighting her spouse, and Hilburn gleefully displays karate moves and takes down Urbaitis.
Another hilarious scene features Bobby sharing pot and laughs with Jenny and David (Cook and Peitersen). Sitting in a huge, beanbag-like chair, Peitersen’s large, expressive eyes and sharp timing make everyone erupt with laughter without even saying a word. Even better when he talks.
Donohoe’s ditzy April also is delightful (the seduction scene with Bobby is a highlight), and Marsoun’s cute choreography is especially good in the female trio of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
Just about every one of the stunning songs is a highlight here, particularly the soaring solo numbers. Huntley is an overpowering freight train as she barrels through “Another Hundred People,” crushing it with both clear confidence and breathtaking nuance.
Czekalski gets to check another bucket-list role off her resume with Joanne (immortalized by Elaine Stritch), a bitter, blowzy, cynical broad who’s the one of many who has a thing for the seemingly perfect Bobby (does the guy have no faults??). Czekalski blows the roof off the Black Box with her tumultuous, angry “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Winn is beautifully reprising Amy here, a role she got to do for another star-filled “Company” (by the former District Theatre) in 2012, and she similarly makes the most of insanely difficult patter song, “Getting Married Today.” Amy’s got a serious case of wedding-day jitters and the blazingly rapid-fire song is a chronicle of her emotional/mental breakdown – it includes one of Sondheim’s brilliant rhymes: “Look, perhaps I’ll collapse/In the apse right before you all.” Winn literally gets down on her knees, lurching forward in her frantic plea, and we totally get it when she wants to belt the “choir lady” who’s singing all in favor of the wedding.
Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt is exceedingly warm and heartfelt as the seemingly only sane one in this urban loony bin. His musical sun gets to shine in three classics – the tender waltz “Someone is Waiting,” the poignant, yearning Act I closer, “Marry Me a Little,” and the final life-affirming “Being Alive,” Bobby’s version of frantic and pleading. Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt shows utter sensitivity and powerful sentimentality, imbuing the big Broadway standard with a refreshing interpretation, all his own, and in turn, a priceless gift for us all.
I can totally relate to the brief bio Mark Ruebling (another veteran of the 2012 “Company”) provided here, noting he “loves/hates” Sondheim (whose staggering output includes lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and scores for “Follies,” “Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods”). Ruebling loves “the feeling of accomplishment when it’s right, hates the amount of work it takes to get there.”
As a Sondheim veteran (of multiple shows), I know exactly what he means, particularly as he notes it’s always worth it. The incredible BBT “Company” has got it, and it’s so worth it. Performances will continue Oct. 14th-16th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 on Thursday, and $16 for all other performances, available at theblackboxtheatre.com.