Those with plans to say “I do” might want to postpone a visit to “Company,” the form-and-content-altering 1970 musical about marriage driven by Stephen Sondheim’s scorching score and a book by George Furth.

‘COMPANY’
Recommended
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80;
Info: www.writerstheater.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

On the other hand, this show — now receiving a fierce, subtly modernized revival at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre — might very well be the most honest marriage manual you will ever encounter, even if so many more people are now living singly, and marital roles have morphed considerably. For in its portrait of Bobby, the 35-year-old New York bachelor with a terror of commitment — a man whose “good and crazy” friends include five couples in various states of wedded bliss and misery (or some combination of the two) — you will find an anatomy of marriage filled with blistering revelations and nonstop ambivalence.

At the same time, the show can be seen as a most fervent endorsement of the need for “company” — a life companion. As the lyrics of its most searing song explains, there is an ache for “Someone to hold me too close. Someone to hurt me too deep… And make me aware, Of being alive.” One thing is for certain: You will not come away from this very adult musical without being shaken.

The Writers Theatre production — the first musical to be staged in its new home — is not without its flaws, but they are far out-weighed by its many strengths. And director William Brown’s attempts to gently update the show work well. “Company” was very much a look at a group of upscale white Manhattanites, with a trio of single, working women drawn to the ever-elusive Bobby like moths to a flame. But Brown has cast one couple with African-American actors (Alexis J. Rogers and James Earl Jones II, who inject just the right amount of humor into their combative, truth-bending, yet in-synch relationship). And a younger pair, played by Patrick Martin and Blair Robertson (in a deft, expertly sung turn as a not so “square” good girl), now arrives with a baby in a wrap-around carrier. (The brief use of a mobile phone upends the enduring ’70s aura.)

Christine Mild (from left), Chelsea Morgan and Jess Godwin are the three single women in the Writers Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's musical, "Company." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Christine Mild (from left), Chelsea Morgan and Jess Godwin are the three single women in the Writers Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Company.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“Company” is a fantasia of sorts, set in motion by the “surprise” birthday party Bobby’s friends throw for him. That event triggers a series of scenes in which he is the witness to the often tumultuous interactions that define the courtships, marriages and divorces of the others. What he sees horrifies and baffles him, and only confirms his choice to remain single. By the end of the first act, Bobby (played by Thom Miller, a handsome actor with just the right mix of charisma and detachment), can enumerate precisely what he wants in a mate in the brilliant “Marry Me a Little.” Miller then nails the second act’s closing anthem, “Being Alive,” though you still wonder whether anything will really change in Bobby, a guy who cannot utter the words “I love you.”

Lia Mortensen sings "The Ladies Who Lunch" in "Company." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Lia Mortensen sings “The Ladies Who Lunch” in “Company.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Among the most appalling relationships Bobby witnesses are those between Amy (Allison Hendrix in one of the show’s most sensational turns), as the Catholic girl who erupts in a pre-nuptial panic of epic proportions before she finally marries her forgiving Jewish boyfriend, Paul (Bernard Balbot), and between Joanne (Lia Mortensen), the sexually aggressive alcoholic in middle age who is married to her younger, self-possessed third husband, Larry (Patrick Sarb). Hendrix is brilliantly neurotic, funny and (finally) cruel in the furious patter song, “Getting Married Today,” and her precision-tooled diction would delight Sondheim. Mortensen brings down the house with “The Ladies Who Lunch,” giving Elaine Stritch, its fabled original interpreter, a real run for her money. Enough said.

Playing Bobby’s three different “girlfriends” are Jess Godwin (as April, the dim-witted flight attendant), Chelsea Morgan (as Kathy, who flees New York for a normal life), and Christine Mild (as Marta, the independent woman who adores New York).

The actors’ conversational approach to the lyrics is superb, even if there is a bit of off-key singing at times in this fiendishly difficult score (under the musical direction of Tom Vendafreddo, with a fine seven-piece orchestra led by Michael Kaish). Todd Rosenthal’s dramatic set features a wildly vertiginous view of New York highrises, plus a series of multi-leveled “balconies” that make for perilous climbing.  But that is the least of the “perils” explored in this deeply unsettling musical.

NOTE: There is no song list for the show in Writers’ magazine-sized program. Bad decision.