THEATER REVIEW : Musical Tackles Tough Issues of Romance : 'Company' explores contemporary relationships. The Santa Barbara group hopes to bring more substance to productions.

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If your taste in musicals runs more toward substance than spectacle, the Contemporary Music Theatre of Santa Barbara might be just your ticket.

The newly formed company has dedicated itself to producing more provocative alternatives to the Broadway blockbuster revivals that have become the staples of regional theater. In place of the familiar escapist romanticism of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, CMT's declared intent is to emphasize social issues and newer works.

Well, newish at least. "Company," CMT's inaugural production, actually premiered in New York 24 years ago. At the time, Stephen Sondheim's smart, sophisticated songs and George Furth's episodic, chronologically challenged book played fast and loose with established theatrical conventions, forcing a fresh perspective on their viewers.

And while some of the show's cutting edge topicality may have been blunted by the intervening decades (sexual promiscuity, experimentation with pot, etc., are hardly uncharted territory anymore), "Company" tackles some particularly difficult questions about marriage and relationships that ring as true in the AIDS-conscious present as they did in the swinging '60s.

Is it really desirable--or even possible--to maintain a lifelong commitment amid the temptations of hedonism in today's world?

That's the central issue troubling our bachelor hero Robert (Mark O'Brien) on his 35th birthday, as he observes his married friends and wonders if he should settle down with someone.

What's still refreshing about "Company" is its refusal to settle for pat answers. When Robert asks his buddy Harry (Ken Ryals) if he's sorry he got married, the song "Sorry-Grateful" that he gets in reply is steeped in the emotional complexity that forms the heart of the show.

You're always sorry,

You're always grateful,

You're always wondering what might have been,

Then she walks in.

In a more hackneyed piece, that song would be the cue for the magical recognition--of course being with her makes it all worthwhile. But Sondheim doesn't allow us the easy out, as Harry continues: "And still you're sorry/And still you're grateful. . ."

"Company's" songs never fail to dazzle with their ingenuity and insight, and the 14-member cast handle the tongue-twisting lyrics and unpredictable rhythms with impressive skill.

Among the most noteworthy performances are Karyl Lynn Burn's triple-time ode to premarital neurosis in the frenetically paced "Getting Married Today;" Angela Haag's eloquent celebration of romance amid the hustle and bustle of New York City in "Another Hundred People;" and the wistful morning-after duet between Robert and a stewardess (Julie Keatinge) in "Barcelona."

As Robert, O'Brien's acting skills just aren't on a par with his singing. His delivery is often mannered and unconvincing, especially in comparison with the more natural characterizations we get from Katie Malloy-Thatcher as a deferential spouse who explores some newfound assertiveness (and an altered state of consciousness), and Rose Anna B. Vitetta as a raucous Weight Watcher's refugee given to wrestling bouts with her husband.

Fortunately, Robert's role through much of the piece is as passive witness to the hilarious excesses of his friends. O'Brien proves far more successful when he gets to articulate his conclusions in song--notably in the heartfelt finale, where he realizes being with other people is the secret to "Being Alive."

Production values are modest, but the thrust stage and three-quarter surround seating make for intimate viewing. Musical director David Potter leads his tasteful three-piece live ensemble through the intricacies of the score with commendable precision.

Briskly directed by Pope Freeman, the show marks an auspicious debut for a fledgling troupe. The commitment to material of substance, the professionalism of the implementation, and the chance to see a watershed work of contemporary musical theater make this production pleasant "Company" indeed.

Details

* WHAT: "Company."

* WHEN: Through April 17, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

* WHERE: Fleishman Auditorium, Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara.

* COST: $16.50.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call 963-4408.

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