Last Tuesday, I finished teaching my English 102 class and headed to Strebel Auditorium to watch while Utica University Theatre Department’s “Pioneer Players” practiced the opening scene of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning 1970 Broadway musical Company.
Onstage Bobby, who is having a mild existential crisis at turning 35 as a single man. His friends are all married (or engaged), and though they form a supportive and loving family, he wonders what he is missing out on as a bachelor.
“…these good and crazy people, my friends,” he sings. Then he adds, “These good and crazy people, my married friends. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“The show really captures the notion of relationships, ‘company’ itself, and the feeling of being alone,” Xander Wilson, who plays Bobby, wrote on his Facebook page.
That was the first day the cast had rehearsed on the Strebel Auditorium stage. Over the next two weeks, I documented how that group of theater artists inhabited the space and transformed it into a cosmopolitan New York City setting with colorful characters and complex emotions.
There was still sawdust on the floor while the 14 actors strutted onstage and encircled Bobby. Their song wished him a happy birthday while extorting him to pair off as they did, conversely revealing how comfortable they were with his status as their single friend.
“Bobby, come on over for dinner!” they sang. “Just be the three of us. Only the three of us. We love you!”
Connor Cannell, a co-stage manager, sat in the front row looking up from his script as the actors-who had been rehearsing in the closed-since-COVID Edith Langley Barrett on-campus art gallery-worked on their movements on the actual theater stage.
Cannell is a Junior at Utica University. He is majoring in Physical Exercise and Wellness Studies. He plans to become a Health or Physical Education teacher after graduation. He took me backstage and showed me a table covered with a toaster, coffee cups, flowers, and other props, including a stack of straw hats. He made a detailed list of what is required in each scene.
One of Cannell’s responsibilities is ensuring the drinks look authentic on stage. Arizona Iced Tea stands in for bourbon, and water fills the martini glass of the acerbic Joanne-some of which she splashes onstage in a flourish of boozy bitterness. It’s up to Cannell to make sure it is mopped up between scenes so that no one falls. The birthday party forms a framing device for the story-so, there is a cake and candles to keep track of as well.
“It’s really amazing to see how everything is coming together,” Cannell said as he showed me where some of the barware is stored.
Company was first produced in 1970, so some of the references are unfamiliar to most cast members in their late teens and twenties. Even the ennui of someone approaching middle age and unmarried is a sensation that may be harder to conceptualize until you actually reach that age.
“It’s interesting to watch a show that is usually performed by older adults-like 30 to 50-being played by mostly college students,” Dennis J. Clark, the play’s director, told me while the cast prepared to rehearse the nightclub scene in Act II.
Clark earned degrees in theater and musical theater before moving to New York City, where he worked as an actor, director, and teacher before touring in regional productions nationwide. His professional experiences add a great deal to the educational and artistic experience of the cast and crew.
I asked him about the disparity between the ages of most of the actors and the characters they were playing and what challenges and opportunities that created.
“They bring fresh eyes and perspective,” Clark told me. “They may bring up something that seems out of place, but it may still be relevant, and it may flavor something or change the tone of something [in ways one] wouldn’t have expected.”
Clark took copious notes while the actors were rehearsing. After a run-through, the cast gathered downstage so he could give them direction.
“You grabbed me, and I was literally entranced,” he said to Jessica Wilk, who had just rehearsed her character Joanne’s iconic “The Ladies Who Lunch” song. They then worked out the precise moment she should raise her martini glass.
“The Ladies Who Lunch” is known in the theater world as the “11 o’clock number,” a big show-stopping song performed late in the second act that is either a revelatory climax to a character arc or a cathartic articulation of a central theme. In this case, it’s both.
“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’” tells so many stories,” Wilk said. “Joanne is a guiding force for Bobby.”
The song is “part of a conversation that starts out fairly jovially, but becomes more pointed and more aggressive as the evening drunkenly progresses,” Joel Fram, a noted musical director of Broadway and London’s West End, told the website Broadway World.
“With a classic piece of theater like Company, the text informs and inspires my choices as an actor,” Wilk told me. “Of course, I was familiar with the brilliant performances of Elaine Stritch and Patti Lupone, but I wanted to bring my perspective and experience to the role without copying their work.”
If you do not blow out all the candles on your cake, you do not get to make your wish,” Joanne exhorts Bobby, “I know the rules because I have had enough for a wax museum!”
Wilk is a powerhouse performer whose talent and expertise give her pivotal character a compelling mix of bitterness and bravado. It also helps that she is older than the rest of the cast. On the day the troupe tested their microphones, someone played “Seasons of Love” from Rent on the sound system.
Everyone in the cast knew the song, but Wilk had seen it performed live on its first national tour. “Carrie Hamilton was in the cast,” she told me from the stage. “You know, Carol Burnett’s daughter.”
I did know. I remember when Rent was new, and I do know who Carol Burnett is. In a play about connection, it is interesting how all generations share some experiences and perspectives while certain cultural touchstones have more of a piquant quality.
To get into her character of April, Ally Priore Quigley researched some of the more obscure 70s-era references in the dialogue and even did an Enneagram Personality Type analysis of April. Quigley determined that her character was a type 7, which Wikipedia describes as an “ethusiast” prone to “Thinking fulfillment is somewhere else.”
“April is always chasing adventure,” Quigley pointed out. “Type 7s are ‘joy junkies.’ They don’t necessarily stay in one place. Which makes them perfect flight attendants.”
At Saturday night’s tech rehearsal, most of the actors in Utica University Theatre Dept.’s Pioneer Players production of “Company” wore their costumes on stage for the first time. Quigley, however, had come to every rehearsal in her navy blue blazer and a collared white button-down shirt. She added a pencil skirt and a matching neck scarf as the week went on. It was important to her to look every bit the part of April, a flight attendant who puts her plans to fly to Barcelona on hold so that she can spend the night with Bobby.
“I think it’s important to have this on,” Quigley said, referring to her costume. She said she needed to get used to wearing it onstage not only for the musical numbers (it’s hard dancing in a pencil skirt) but because the Barcelona scene required a precisely timed costume change.
Quigley prepared in other ways too. She watched videos of flight attendants to study their hand gestures and vocal inflections.
This is the first show Quigley has done with Utica University, but the second time Quigly has performed in “Company.” She played Marta in a production of the musical for Players of Utica. In addition to that, she has performed with Rome Community Theater, Rome Capitol Summer Stage, M. Proctor Theatre Guild, and State Two Theatre Company.
“We are very lucky to have so many theater groups in this area,” she said. Then looking like the quintessential bright and glamorous Pan Am-era stewardess, she buttoned her blazer and rushed onstage to practice her Act II musical number with Xander Wilson’s Bobby.
Ryannne Solinsky is a graduate of the Crane School of Music Education and a middle school music teacher. Company is her first production at Utica University; she told me about the play while looking for her costume in a rack at the back of the theater.
“It’s a story about Bobby,” she said. “He’s single and trying to find love in New York City. He’s talking to all his married friends to get an idea of what marriage is like. He asks himself, ‘Do I want to be married, or do I not want to be married?’ He’s kind of figuring himself out throughout the show.”
Solinsky plays Marta, one of Bobby’s three girlfriends who sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a fun song about their exasperation that she describes as a “cute little doo-wop number.”
Solinsky thinks of her character’s dialogue as an inner monologue by Bobby.
One of Ashley Tavarez’s roles as part of the stage crew is to keep track of every character’s story. Tavarez is a Utica University sophomore majoring in Psychology with a minor in Theatre. As Thursday’s rehearsal began, she read for “Bobby, since Wilson, a student who takes classes at both Utica University and SUNY Poly, was on his way to campus. One of his classes is a lab that gets done late on Thursdays.
“I’m very partial to musicals,” Tavarez told me. “Hamilton is my favorite.”
Between scenes, she pointed out what the different colored tape on the stage floor indicated.
“The ‘X’ in the middle of the stage is for ‘Bobby,’” she pointed out. “Purple tape is for center stage; pink is for the nightclub; green is for the birthday party. When the lights go down, all the actors can see are those bright colors on the floor.”
At Thursday’s rehearsal, Hannah DeStefano was choreographing “Side By Side By Side/What Would We Do Without You?” from Act II. That was the first day the cast had the actual styrofoam boater hats they would be wearing in the production, and, as with all of the costuming and blocking, the weight and fit of the hats presented factors that DeStefno had to work on with the cast.
“The challenge with the hats was getting down the specificity of movements,” she explained. “I want to do something kitschy and really ‘old-timey.’”
Another challenge for DeStefano is choreographing a show in which she is also a performer.
“[As choreographer] you want to see what everyone is doing and how the movement looks, but you also have to remember to put yourself in it,” she said.
This is the third time she has filled both roles in a play, and although she puts a great deal of work and practice into her art, she makes it look easy and natural.
“I’ve learned on the fly,” she told me during a break. “I’ve done a lot of shows, been in dance ensembles, and worked with a lot of great choreographers.”
DeStefano also told me she has gotten a lot of help from director Dennis J. Clarke, whom she describes as a “great choreographer.”
I had the pleasure of watching Shannon Migliore and Jacob Carissimo gradually work out the complex choreography they need to play Sarah and Harry, a preoccupied couple whose obsessions with alcohol, food, magazines, and criticizing one another boil over into a karate showdown where she demonstrates her moves by laying him out on the floor. It is a technically tricky scene that requires Carissimo’s Harry to end up on the floor several times.
“I just have to throw him around,” Migliore laughed. “He has the hard job of making it not hurt!”
“Outside of cracking my head open, I would just keep going!” Carissimo added enthusiastically.
Physical stunts like this are considered “stage combat,” Migliore explained. It was one of the first things they choreographed for the show, and during rehearsals, the pair practiced over and over again. First un-miked and in regular clothes, then with their portable microphones, then in costume. Still, when two actors tussle and one falls to the floor, gravity and randomness can prevent complete control of the action.
“The falling is emergent,” Carissimo said. “It’s not always completely planned.”
“It took a while to get it to where the moves would look authentic,” Migliore said.
By the weekend, the “stage combat” was absolutely authentic, significantly adding to the characterization. The sequence is simultaneously comic and dramatic, with physical expressions that come across as enthusiastic, aggressive, flirtatious, and symbolic of the character’s frustrated desires, all crashing to the floor with a thud that sends her out of the room and him to the bourbon.
Those thuds and crashes were one of the challenges for Corrie Aldrich, the sound designer.
Each cast member has a portable microphone, and there are two sets of speakers; “monitors” that face the stage and provide an audio reference for performers and the speakers that provide sound to the audience. Aldrich spends most of the rehearsals running back and forth from the control booth at the back to the stage while checking a tablet that controls the audio.
Her job seems to get complicated each day. Each actor has to adjust their microphone to remain the proper distance from their face. That is an ongoing process complicated by obvious factors like facial hair and not-so-obvious elements like the sound of prop bourbon being poured into a glass, movement by the actors who sing and dance throughout the play, and the layering in of sound effects to indicate weather, and the bustle of New York City street as heard from a terrace. Then there are the phone messages that open the play. When Bobby presses his answering machine, a series of birthday greetings from friends needs to be played by a sound technician who is either backstage or far away from the state in the control booth.
And if that weren’t enough, the actors have to make sure their mic lights are green (for full battery) and not orange-which indicates they are about out of power.
“Is everybody’s mic on?” Aldrich asks at one point.
She called out several characters’ names, saying, “Your mics probably aren’t on.”
And they weren’t. “Orange light” mics had to be swapped out for ones with full charges. Each actor said some dialogue, sang a little, and pronounced was ready to rehearse.
“What does a red light mean?” Someone asked.
It means that the mic is muted. After a few days, I lost track of how often Aldrich has to remember to mute and unmute and amplify or reduce particular actors’ mics at certain times to avoid the sound of clinking beer bottles or a stirred martini blocking out someone else’s dialogue.
“Give me one second,” she calls out and makes adjustments on her tablet. It is a constant process requiring enormous patience as well as skill.
MaryGrace Kehrli, the assistant director, is in her senior year at Utica University has used this opportunity to learn several new skills to add to her wealth of knowledge as a performer. She has appeared in numerous theatrical productions, but this is her first time as part of a directing team. She has nothing but praise for Dennis J. Clark, the director.
“He is a great person; I am excited to learn from him,” Kehrli said she was excited to learn from him. “I took a lot of notes about blocking and how he brought a vision to life on stage. The experience is so enjoyable that she also does double-duty as a co-stage manager with fellow Utica University student Connor Cannell.
“Company” has a 70s vibe, so Kehrli and Cannell showed me how much thought and planning has to go into precisely placing the contents of the liquor cabinet. There are bottles and barware, and-not surprisingly, for the era-packs of cigarettes, that all need to be in the same spot for every performance.
I asked her what she learned the most from the process.
“How to bring a vision to life,” she answered. Those were the many technical aspects Kehrli and Cannell worked through under Clark’s direction. Kehrli was there as they figured out the concept, and she helped bring that vibrant cosmopolitan vision to life. But, one of the revelations for her was how a director needs to know what every character is doing and thinking at all times-whether they are speaking, singing, dancing, or simply reacting to their fellow actors.
During our interview, she conferred with Clark and Cannell about a tricky bit of business in the first act. They had to sort out how all those 14 characters would enter singing, then swarm and swirl about Bobby as he prepared to blow out the candles. The supporting cast, in perfectly calibrated dialogue, suggested birthday wishes that revealed more about them than about him. Then exit in pairs. The dialogue is so natural and New York City-snappy that it can almost veer into overlapping-but the directing team reigned that in with expertise. It was all figured out by dress rehearsal on Tuesday, and, like the singing and dialogue, it flowed smoothly and professionally.
“It’s definitely a lot harder than it looks,” she said later while making sure the fake orange juice was poured into the right juice glasses, in the right amount, and positioned so that they were readily accessible by the performers. “I have learned a whole new perspective on theatre.”
Those opening scenes with Bobby and his birthday cake are crucial in establishing what the show is about and what the stakes are.
Wilson says the “how creates a space where a plot is forsaken in place of a feeling, or a concept and that Bobby has been the most difficult character I’ve had to break down and as we move into show week.”
Company is as sophisticated and compelling as it is entertaining. Wilson carries this off admirably. The heartfelt surge of emotion conveyed by his eyes contrasts effectively with the zany, zippy, and sometimes heartbreaking actions of his “good and crazy friends.” Through it all the audience feels his indecision, and it’s as palpable and compelling as anything I have ever seen on stage.
“Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish,” one of those friends insists. “Want something. Want something!”
He may not know what he wants, but you’ll sure be wishing he gets it.
The Utica University Theatre Department’s “Pioneer Players” are presenting Company, Thursday, April 20th-Saturday, April 22nd, at 7:30 pm in Strebel Auditorium. Tickets are $10, with admission free for Utica University students.
Tickets can be purchased online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/company-musical-performance-tickets-609701051257?utm-campaign=social&utm-content=attendeeshare&utm-medium=discovery&utm-term=listing&utm-source=cp&aff=escb
Ron Klopfanstein is an adjunct English instructor at Utica University, and at the New York Mills School District. Like him at Facebook.com/ReadRonKlopfanstein and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein and Instagram.com/RonKlopfanstein.