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Originally published Tuesday, October 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Love and disillusionment, Stephen Sondheim style

Sometimes a single song crystallizes a whole show — like the 5th Avenue Theatre's "Company," a rare local revival of a flawed yet...

Seattle Times theater critic

Sometimes a single song crystallizes a whole show — like the 5th Avenue Theatre's "Company," a rare local revival of a flawed yet fascinating Sondheim musical.

Sung by powerhouse Broadway tenor Hugh Panaro, the climactic ballad "Being Alive" is no ordinary love song.

This surging Stephen Sondheim standard is nothing less than a realization that love is only vital when it infringes on your freedom, asks what you'd rather not give, exposes and intrudes on you.

The song longs for someone who'll "hurt you too deep," "need you too much" and "ruin your sleep." No pain, no gain.

Since "Company" hit Broadway in 1970, "Being Alive" has been criticized — even by Sondheim — as a false-positive capper to a show with an ambivalent at best, fatalistic at worst, view of modern marriage.

But in 5th Avenue director David Armstrong's vigorous but none-too-subtle staging of "Company," the tune makes an ecstatic catharsis for swinging '70s Manhattan bachelor Bobby, its lead figure.

Last season, Armstrong engineered a rare, full-blown version of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" at the 5th Avenue. "Company" is less familiar, and less populated and operatic. But it too is riddled with challenges — some met, but not all.

Now playing

"Company," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Nov. 5, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle;$20-$73 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).

For most of the show, Panaro's boyishly appealing Bobby is a passive voyeur to the marital angst of the five wedded couples who are his best friends.

He views his own amours — with a stewardess, a hip city chick and an old flame, Kathy — as genial flings.

But Bobby must evolve for "Company" to mean much. And with "Being Alive," he has a bracing musical epiphany about commitment in a dawning era of sexual revolution and no-fault divorces.

In 1970, "Company" brought a new kind of psychological realism, vignette structure and pastiche musical texture to the Broadway musical.

Today this influential show is saddled with one dated element: George Furth's disjointed, brittle book. There are still laughs in the "Annie Hall"-esque pot smoking scene, and, sporadically, from the many rounds of marital squabbling.

But Sondheim's pungent score, ably conducted by Ian Eisendrath, is fresh as ever, still remarkable in its sonic and lyrical sophistication.

It starts with a jazzy, cacophonous chorale of voices advising, envying, mothering and coveting Bobby, on the occasion of his 35th birthday.

In visits with each couple, Bobby is privy to the acrid side of wedded bliss ("The Little Things You Do Together"), the mixed bag of intimacy ("Sorry-Grateful"), the bitterness of aging trophy wives ("The Ladies Who Lunch").

Who'd want to marry, with such role models? But ultimately (and semi-persuasively) Bobby realizes all these difficult people need (and deserve) one another.

"Company" tests the 5th Avenue cast, who must race and dance around James Wolk's high-rise set, sing the ambitious score and contend with the theater's one-volume-fits-all sound system.

Panaro is more puppyish than roguish but sets a high vocal bar, met by strong singers Shelly Burch (as the edgy, boozy Joanne); Lisa Estridge, who sings the haunting urban ode, "Another Hundred People"); Billie Wildrick's insecure stewardess April ("Barcelona"); and Kendra Kassebaum, who nails the tongue-twister "Getting Married Today."

An early, regrettable flaw is David Quicksall's weak "Sorry-Grateful." And try as they might, Anne Allgood, Bobbi Kotula, Susannah Mars and Timothy McCuen Piggee can't always wring mirth from shrill comic business.

Yet for music-theater buffs, the 5th Avenue's "Company" fascinates even if it doesn't entirely hold up. It's hard to imagine it, but a quite different revival of the show, with the actors doubling as instrumentalists, opens soon on Broadway.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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