By Gwendolyn Kochur
“Sondheim has great potential for success and great potential for failure, so we are really riding the precipice,” director and scenic designer Russ Borski said.
The Sondheim to which he refers is none other than Stephen Sondheim, the award-winning composer and lyricist known for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Into the Woods” and “Sweeny Todd,” to name a few.
He also wrote the music and lyrics to “Company,” the show that is kicking off the Cleveland State Theater Department’s 2017-18 three-show season.
The musical comedy follows New Yorker Robert, portrayed by senior Frank Ivancic. Robert’s best friends are all married couples, which only reminds the bachelor of his reluctance to commit to serious relationships. While juggling three girlfriends and visiting each of the couples, he evaluates the quizzical institution of marriage and struggles to define his own views on the subject.
Spurred on by the success of the 2016 fall production of “Avenue Q,” which sold over three-thousand tickets, the department chose “Company” for its large nature and youthful cast.
“The show centers around young professionals, the music is very singable and it’s not heavily reliant on choreography or dancers,” Borski said. “It really facilitates the strengths of the cast.”
And according to Borski, casting was the most challenging task he faced when bringing the script to life. He explained that casting a musical in a non-musical theater department is no easy venture, especially when trying to execute the crisp wording, intricate harmonies and complex rhyming that is signature of Sondheim’s lyrics. Due to this challenge, Director Borski shares equal billing on the program with the musical director Maria Didonato.
“Everyone is going to stretch, it’s a challenging show,” Borski said, adding that ultimately, it’s the job of the department to challenge the students and help them grow.
Cleveland State students are involved in every aspect of the production, with students in roles from stage manager, to master electrician, to wardrobe crew. The cast of 18 consists of theater, dance and music majors.
The six-time Tony award winning “Company” is 47 years old, having first debuted in 1970. Although properly aged, Borski thinks people will find the show very relatable due to its focus on relationships, daily struggles and discovering how to make one’s life feel vital. While the original was set in the 70s, the university decided to set their show in 2017, further attempting to make it more accessible to audiences by including modern references.
Director Borski is also filling the roles of scene designer and props master for the production. While traveling to his hometown of Chicago over the summer, he took an architectural tour of the city which influenced his set design. Borski also attended a Home and Garden show, where he was introduced to a new type of greenhouse paneling that looks similar to glass. Calling on both of these experiences for inspiration, Borski designed the set with what appears to be steel and glass, aiming to tell the story by utilizing different elements of light and translucency.
The poster for Cleveland State’s “Company” is a recreation of Robert Longo’s “Men in Cities” series, where well-dressed men and women are photographed in intense moments of emotion. Borski felt this represented the struggle of balancing of professional and personal lives that is so integral to “Company.”
As a resident company of Playhouse Square, the university will perform “Company” on the Allen Theatre Mainstage.
“The scope of actor to audience is just like being in a Broadway house and to get that dynamic is just great,” Borski said when asked about performing on a professional stage.
“It gives the students a real visceral experience.” The Allen Theatre seats just under 500, which Borski thinks creates an intimacy and a grandness at the same time.
For the first time, the Theater Department is sectioning off a portion of the seating for theatergoers who are hearing-impaired. On Thursday, Nov. 2, three American Sign Language interpreters will be providing interpretation of “Company.”
While Cleveland State’s Department of Disability Services will be providing the interpreters, theater student and cast member Chace Coulter has helped to establish this inaugural event.
“We want all walks of life to be able to participate in theater,” Coulter said.
He also adds that the interpreters will be serving an educational purpose. Cleveland State students studying sign language have been invited to the performance and some Cleveland State ASL professors have reached out to other universities to interest students studying the language.
The ASL performance is only available for pre-sale for $5 using the code ASL, while all other performances are $5 for students, staff and faculty, and $10 for general admission. Tickets can be bought at http://www.playhousesquare.org or by calling (216) 241-6000.
Audiences can see “Company” when it opens on Oct. 26 and runs through Nov. 5.