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A new company gets off to an unsteady start

Over the past couple of years, several esteemed theaters in our area have been permanently dispatched by the economic downturn. That makes it especially gratifying when a new professional theater arises, such as the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory.

Led by artistic director Fred Sternfeld, FPAC has focused on educating and training young people. Now it's launching an adult professional wing with a staging of Company, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth.

This iconic piece about the vagaries of romantic entanglements among the upwardly mobile in 1970s Manhattan is brimming with gloriously intricate compositions and acidic banter. And this iteration, directed by Sternfeld, finds many moments of levity along the way. But a yawning vacuum at the center of the production, along with some heavy-handed approaches to key scenes, make this inaugural performance an unfortunately mixed blessing.

Robert is a charismatic but commitment-phobic 35-year-old who finds himself irresistibly appealing to the fairer sex. And he's never out of circulation for long, since he has three women he hooks up with regularly.

Group scenes go well. Despite some ragged sound balancing, the ensemble's turns on the kick-off songs "Company" and "The Little Things You Do Together" are tight and promise better things to come.

As Amy, Ursula Cataan aces the turbo-charged "Getting Married Today," giving it the hilarious, show-stopping performance it deserves. And Erin Diroll delivers some laughs as the spacey April while fashioning a tender "Barcelona" in a duet with Robert.

However, an obtrusive set element — a large rolling platform that is the only object on stage — is an impediment. Fashioned by the usually sublime set designer Trad A. Burns, it turns the playing space into an obstacle course.

A more insurmountable problem is in the casting. As Robert, the superb singer Connor O'Brien is woefully lacking. Unaccountably, director Sternfeld allows his lead actor to mug and smirk his way through this role. His litany of facial tics is so distracting, one is tempted to rush the stage and fasten a Hannibal Lecter mask on him.

But there's a deeper problem: O'Brien never emerges from his avalanche of mannerisms to develop a credible character. So when the time comes for this isolated man to reflect on his true nature, there's nothing there for him, or us, to contemplate.

Another disappointment is the excellent actor Tracee Patterson in the juicy role of bitch queen Joanne. Playing drunk with all the subtlety of a bad Foster Brooks mimic, Patterson slobbers her way through some supposedly pointed chitchat in a bar. This lead-in transforms her song "The Ladies Who Lunch" from the chilly extra-dry martini it should be to a lukewarm rum slushie.

Company is the first offering of FPAC's two-show "Sondheim Tribute," which will conclude in the fall with A Little Night Music. Despite glitches in the current production, FPAC is a valuable venue for the young and the not-so-young, and a welcome addition to the scene.

Robert is a charismatic but commitment-phobic 35-year-old who finds himself irresistibly appealing to the fairer sex. And he's never out of circulation for long, since he has three women he hooks up with regularly, along with five couples who are all settled down (mostly) and who keep trying to fix up their Bobby with the perfect woman.

With incisive songs and short dialogue set pieces, Company provides all the delicious material a theater group needs to explore the multitudinous issues that flow around the dueling pleasures and terrors of being either single or attached.

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