By Dale King
MNM Productions is a small but driven contemporary theater company that’s latched on to the black-box-style, 300-seat Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, and intends to stay a while.
Its two producing partners, Michael Lifshitz and Marcie Gorman-Althof, have given wing to risk by announcing plans to present one of the best-loved and most honored, but also most challenging and demanding musicals, Company, on the Rinker stage starting July 21. It’s the second of four shows planned this season by the three-year-old acting group that used the Crest Theatre stage in Delray before deciding on Rinker.
“Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ is extraordinarily intricate,” said Lifshitz. “He tends to be intricate for the sake of being intricate. I’d like to crawl into his brain.”
An actor since childhood, Lifshitz traces his theatrical lineage back to Jan McArt’s Royal Palm Dinner Theater in Boca Raton, where he was a “swing man” – basically a fill-in for any performer who didn’t show. He ran a performance gamut, through community and legitimate theater, before settling in as co-producer at MNM in 2014.
Producers have tapped 14 previous MNM cast members to perform Company: Robert Johnston as Bobby, the key character in the show, along with Larry Alexander, Amy Miller Brennan, Clay Cartland, Lindsey Corey, Jinon Deeb, Laura Hodos, Nicole Ninzel, Joshua Kolb, Wayne LeGette, Joshua McKinney, Mallory Newbrough, Erika Scotti and Leah Sessa.
Johnston feels the role of Bobby, the introspective middle-aged man who hasn’t really decided what to do with his life, “is a huge part; it’s one of the biggest.” The actor spends most of his acting time in Orlando, but happened to be in Fort Lauderdale when he learned of the casting call. He got the role a few days after doing “my absolute best” at the audition.
Company is a 1970 musical comedy with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth. The original production was nominated for a record-setting 14 Tony awards, winning six.
Johnston calls Sondheim “a musical Shakespeare.”
The plot revolves around Bobby (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, let alone marriage); the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Unlike most book musicals, which follow a clearly delineated plot, Company is composed of short vignettes, presented in no particular order, linked by the celebration for Bobby’s 35th birthday.
During the party scene which opens the musical, Bobby is unable to blow out the birthday candles. His friends say he’ll still get his wish, but he says he wished for nothing, because he has everything he needs – his friends.
“It is not meant to be a spectacle,” said Johnston. “The show is grounded. Everybody tries to find love. Bobby turns 35, and he’s trying to determine whether he’s ready to get married.”
The part “is a large workload. It is easy to underplay a role that has such emotional depth,” he said. Johnston drew some of his knowledge of and inspiration for the role from seeing the New York revival of Company starring Raúl Esparza as Bobby – the actor perhaps best known as ADA Rafael Barba on Law & Order SVU.
Actress Erika Scotti nabbed an important role as well, that of Joanne, who sings the show’s best-known – and perhaps most sardonic – song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” She raises her glass in a mocking toast to those “ladies,” passing judgment on various types of rich, middle-aged women wasting their lives away with mostly meaningless activities. Her harshest criticism is reserved for those, like herself, who “just watch.”
Scotti, fresh from a portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy, is, like Joanne, “a New Yorker. She comes from the upper class, with a lot of money. She has been married several times. She’s a tough cookie with a sardonic wit. She has her own spin on things.”
Joanne views Bobby as “someone who is trying to figure out what to do.” He gets into the “dysfunction” of his friends.
“Joanne has a line in the show; that she’s too old for young people and too young for old people. I can relate to that,” said Scotti.
The role of Joanne “is a fantastic part,” added the Broward resident who began acting in New York, then took “a long hiatus” for marriage, children and to work in the education field. She has quit that job to get back into theater.
Along the way, she has also done films, including commercials and guest shots on Miami Vice.
MNM Productions began its run in 2014 with A Chorus Line at Crest Theatre, then four weeks of Side by Side by Sondheim in August 2015, two weeks at Crest, two weeks at Rinker. They did Hair in May 2016 and The World Goes ‘Round last August, both at the Rinker.
MNM opened May 19-June 4 with Monty Python’s Spamalot. Company runs July 21-Aug. 6; La Cage aux Folles will be staged Oct. 6-22 and the concluding show has just been announced – Little Shop of Horrors.