By: Rachel Golkin
Photo Courtesy of: Paul Kennedy
Taking their audience back to the bright and groovy days of the 1970s, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Drama Department kicked off their 2019-2020 season on Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Irvine Barclay Theater with a lively production of “Company,” directed by Eli Simon. Revolutionary for being one of the first “concept musicals,” the show abandons a typical linear plot structure for an open-ended series of scenes and songs connected by a common theme, the search for meaning through love.
In the opening scene, the single and unsatisfied Bobby contemplates the idea of marriage as his friends gather to celebrate his 35th birthday. Reminiscing on nights he’s shared with his married friends, he reflects on his solitary lifestyle, wondering if its the source of emptiness in his life.
With beautiful vocals, a knack for comedic timing and a wealth of emotional depth, Jalon Matthews is excellent as Bobby, the charming and contemplative bachelor. Matthews flows seamlessly through the various scenes as the tone switches between comedic and dramatic. In one moment, he’s a smooth-talking womanizer, flirting effortlessly with one of his three lovers. In the next, he’s a concerned and loyal companion talking his friends through relationship issues.
The enthusiastic and delightful cast of supporting characters — Bobby’s eccentric friends — work together like a well-oiled machine to keep the show moving at an upbeat pace. In “Sorry-Grateful,” the men simultaneously encourage and warn Bobby about marriage, unsure if they’re even happy with their own marriages. Later, they crowd and overwhelm him with playful shoves and suggestive looks in “Have I Got a Girl For You,” hailing him as their hero while comedically lamenting giving up the bachelor life. The women, on the other hand, all wish for him to settle down. In “Poor Baby,” their voices blend beautifully as they pout and sigh, condescendingly imagining the emptiness he must feel.
The turning point in Bobby’s search for meaning is a conversation with his older friend Joanne, played by Hope Andrejack, a bitter and blunt divorcée currently in her third marriage. Drunk and working through a midlife crisis, Andrejack scorns Bobby for standing off to the side and letting life pass him by. Fueling her gorgeous voice with strength and passion, she cruelly mocks the various ways women throw their lives away in “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Saving the harshest judgement for herself, her voice trembles on the verge of either laughter or tears as she raises her glass scornfully and sings the lyrics, “the girls who just watch.”
This production would be incomplete without Jacob P. Brinkman’s intricate and colorful lighting design. The windows in the apartment buildings at the back of the stage are constantly filled with light, emitting shades of teal, pink or sunset orange depending on the mood. Meanwhile, the colors bathing the walls of the buildings also change from song to song, notably striking a cheery shade of rose at the beginning of “Side by Side by Side” and darkening to a deep blue during “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Transforming the stage into a technicolor dream, Cassie DeFile’s costume design captures all the groovy vibrancy of the 1970s. The high-waisted bell-bottoms, fitted button-ups, and midi skirts with tights feel wonderfully authentic, while the vivid shades of turquoise, coral, and canary yellow liven up every scene.
When the story draws to a close and Matthews’ emotions climax in his final song, “Being Alive,” he performs the iconic number with beautiful sincerity. His booming voice fills the theater and yet he sacrifices no emotional intimacy, seeming to connect with every person in the audience. With tears glistening in his eyes, he grasps at the theme of the show, finally admitting to himself that he’s living half a life and needs something outside of himself to make him feel whole.
When “Company” debuted, Bobby’s search for fulfillment and self-realization fit perfectly with the culture of the 1970s, often coined the “me” decade. Today, young adults are still criticized for their extensive focus on the improvement and fulfillment of the self. But both in its original period and in 2019, this musical makes the eloquent argument that the search for meaning is something to be praised and celebrated, not scoffed at.
“Company” became a radical musical when it debuted for its unique structure and celebration of the self, it continues to be remarkably relevant today. The jubilant yet genuine production sets the UCI Drama Department’s season off to an excellent start.