Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of The Merchant of Venice and Peerless

Robert Nelson and Gillian Eichenberger
Photo by Photo by Marina Nims
In this era of Yelp and TripAdvisor, the Michelin Red Guides remain the pinnacle of travel advice, even after more than 100 years of publication, especially for restaurants. Their star ratings are highly sought-after, and a three-star Michelin rating almost guarantees continuous bookings. Only about 120 restaurants in all the world (six in California!) currently boast a trois étoiles designation. In the world of Michelin, one star (still very hard to get) indicates a "very good" restaurant in its category. Two stars are "worth a detour" and three merit "a special journey." (Michelin likes to encourage travel in order to boost tire sales.) I give you all this as preface, because the current production of Stephen Sondheim's Company at Novato Theater Company is very good, with an ensemble worth a detour and at least two performances that warrant a special journey.

Start with the show itself, to me easily the best of all of Sondheim's efforts. It has two of his very best songs ("The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Getting Married Today"), and several other charming, thrilling or touching numbers, including "Sorry-Grateful," "Side by Side," "Being Alive" and "Marry Me A Little." The book by George Furth is based on a series of one-act plays he wrote, and has no true narrative thread, but it is linked—marvelously—by that amazing music and a universal theme: How do we individual, autonomous humans connect with our fellow beings?

Sondheim explores this fertile ground in ways that lay bare the conundrum within the question. Many of the songs are about this duality ("Sorry-Grateful," "The Little Things You Do Together," "Getting Married Today") and this dichotomy gives Company so much narrative energy. The Novato Theater Company cast brings this Company to life, and despite a few wrong turns here and there, they do so magnificently.

Robert (Robert Nelson) is a single New Yorker turning 35, surrounded by a group of married friends who want him to join their wedded ranks, about which he feels alternately disinterested or incapable. Robert is often played as a sophisticated, somewhat jaded sophisticate, but Nelson imbues his Bobby with a nebbish-y slouch that reveals the somewhat lost soul at Bobby's core, which adds a rather adorable darkness to the character.

Robert is dating three women: April (Gillian Eichenberger), a flight attendant who is sweet, but not Bobby's intellectual equal; Marta (Amanda Morando), a 1960s era hippie chick (the action happens in the early 1970s); and Kathy (Arielle Mandelberg), whom Robert was once serious with. All three are wonderful, but Gillian Eichenberger has an impish quality that hides snark under a veneer of saccharine charm.

The couples all have their own baggage to claim. Joanne (Paula Gianetti) needles Larry (Stephen Beecroft), but deep down there seems to be true affection. David (Lorenzo Alviso) and Jenny (Jennifer Rodway) are inhibited at very different levels, but are united in encouraging Robert to find someone. Peter (Rusty Thompson) and Susan (Sophia Grace Ferar) seem the ideal couple, happy and rapturously in love—despite the fact (or because of it) that they are getting divorced. And Sarah (Amy Dietz) and Harry (Paul Hogarth) actually come to blows—though mostly playfully, after Robert asks for a demonstration of Sarah's newly learned karate skills.

Perhaps the best thing about this cast is how they come together as an ensemble under the skilled hand of director Patrick Nims. Despite occasional slips in line readings, a wayward accent (Susan is supposed to be a Southern belle, but Ferar simply doesn't come close to pulling off the drawl), and one failed song (it may have been an off night, but Amanda Morando was consistently pitchy during "Another Hundred People" at the performance I attended), they more than compensate by lifting each other up throughout the evening, bringing the ensemble to greater heights. They are as in tune with each other—musically and emotionally—as any ensemble you're likely to see on any stage, let alone one tucked into an odd space in a horrifically dumpy mini-strip mall setting. (Fortunately, Michael Walraven's set is wonderful and hides most of the building's architectural sins.)

Each of the cast deserve praise, but two performances ascend to Michelin three-star level. The character of Joanne is the most cynical and world weary (and most divorced) of the bunch, and Paula Gianetti plays her with a slighted besotted spunk that is a joy to behold. When it comes time for her big number, "The Ladies Who Lunch," she launches it into the stratosphere. Heck, with her brilliant gestures and fully committed vocalization, it's probably approaching the orbit of Neptune by now.

Yet somehow there was an even more wonderful performance—Nicole Thordsen's Amy. She has a charm and comic sense that kept me laughing—and occasionally gasping—every time she was featured. Her performance of "Getting Married Today" is nearer perfection. The song requires incredible energy, rhythm, breath control, and faultless enunciation. Thordsen managed not only all of these, but added a terrific comic acting performance on top of it. She alone is worth the journey to Novato.

If it's true that "we're all in this alone," seeking respite from the existential loneliness of existence in the company of our fellow human beings, then I can think of no better place to find that comfort than with a company of performers united in the sole purpose of entertaining you. Novato Theater Company's Company is simply not to be missed.

Company runs through April 16, 2017, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general, $24 for seniors and students, $21 for NTC members and $12 for children under 12. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 415-883-4498.

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