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Sondheim's 'Company' comes to Okoboji stage

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- Samuel Johnson, 18th century essayist, poet and moralist, once wrote: "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures." "Company," winner of the 1970 Tony Award for Best Broadway Musical and currently playing at Okoboji Theatre, makes a similar observation.

Robert, the lead character, is the last single among his married friends, and he's already been a godfather seven times. Although the couples featured in the story line are only mildly happy with each other, they would really like to see Bobby find a wife.

This matchmaking interest for Bobby grows more urgent when he turns 35 in Act One and 36 in Act Two. His birthday parties serve as a catalyst for advice to the bachelor, even though he is often a reluctant guest.

Set against a stark background with three levels of steel platforms, a series of vignettes in song and dance show what each friend wants Bobby to learn about marriage. Along the way, the couples let slip various disadvantages of wedded bliss.

Many of the very large cast remain on stage much of the time and expend a lot of energy while presenting this portrait of upper middle class New Yorkers. Stephen Sondheim created the musical from one-act plays by George Furth. Sondheim has always been a master of acerbic lyrics.

A song that follows a couple's karate maneuvers, "All the things we do together make marriage a joy," and another, "Sorry-Grateful," which explains the ambiguity of feelings toward the married state, are examples of Sondheim's wit and wisdom. Harry has a wife, kids, a home, everything but freedom. "Gotta give up to get," he tells Bobby wistfully.

Probably the score's best known ballad, "The Ladies Who Lunch," which will always belong to the famous Elaine Stritch who made it her signature song, paints a brittle picture of fashionable New Yorkers drinking cocktails while picking at their food.

At Okoboji, John Keitel leads the cast with his appropriately low-key portrayal of bachelor Bobby. He wears a perpetually worried expression, sometimes showing a small smile at the antics of his friends. He's at his best in the finale tune, "Being Alive."

With 14 performers, there are too many to list in this review. Nicole Hietter, a flight attendant invited to spend the night at Bobby's apartment, boasts the best singing voice, my theater companions and I decided.

As Harry, Kyle Groff, at ease on stage as always, shows his agility again this time (two weeks after "See How They Run") while wrestling with his spouse and being flipped over on the floor several times. "Sorry-Grateful" is his nicely rendered song.

Many of the voices lack strength, though ensemble numbers help with that. We felt that the cast often lacks momentum, and the orchestra has its problems with the rather atonal Sondheim music.

Still, there's a lot of good entertainment in this atypical show selection and food for thought as well.

Directed and choreographed by Lamby Hedge, "Company" continues through Sunday.