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It's hard to believe that what we take for granted these days was so revolutionary when Company premiered in 1970. The Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical has no plot, songs don't develop character or further the action, and the piece may not be happening in a real time or place.

So sure: a non-linear, subject-driven musical (sometimes called a "concept" musical) - see 'em all the time. But as Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, "prior to Company, there had never been a plot-less musical which dealt with one set of characters from start to finish."

Or one, for that matter, in which the male lead conducts imaginary interviews with five couples to learn about love and marriage and why he feels allergic to both.

Robert (aka. Bobby, Bob, etc.; each couple gives him a different name) is in such a rut he can't even blow out all 35 candles on his birthday cake. His best friends wish him well and urge him to find a mate.

Bobby asks, in "Someone is Waiting," would "I know her even if I met her? Have I missed her? Did I let her go?"

He's dating three women but looks for a model in his married friends: "cool: Sarah, "warm" Susan, and "frantic and touching" Amy. Is "she" one of them? Or a combination: "a Susan sort of Sarah, a Jennyish Joanne"?

Or, will he hold out for the idealized "Johanna" of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, aim too high, and persist in his avoidance behavior? The outcome remains in doubt. He becomes committed to the possibility of marriage. Will actual commitment follow?

Cygnet Theatre's become Sondheim Central, thanks to artistic director Sean Murray, one of the composer's foremost interpreters (is Follies in the plans someday please?).

Designer Jeanne Reith decks the terrific cast in psychedelic sherbets, a la the TV show Laugh-In. The colors stick out all the more on Ryan Grossman's pleasing and useful, all-white set. Patrick Marion's back-up band paves the way throughout.

As Robert, Andrew Wells Ryder looks a bit like a young Stephen Sondheim and displays the appropriate uncertainty, though the master might wish he were stronger vocally.

The piece is ensemble all the way. Three performances stand out, however: Melissa Fernandes's Sarah, a chocoholic who's learned karate; Eileen Bowman's wonderful Amy who, on her way to the altar ("Getting Married Today") goes stark raving mad; and Linda Libby's acerbic Joanne, who spears "The Ladies Who Lunch" with icicles of wit.

Though appreciative of Sondheim's amazing score, some critics have caviled that Robert is just a "cipher." And he is, pretty much. In his more ardent moments he rises from passive to passive-aggressive - and at the very end he'll be more assertive, maybe.

But that's the point. The cavilers expected a well-rounded, "book-musical" character. But Robert isn't. In the beginning, he's as lost as Dante (also 35, and in the middle of his life's journey). Robert has no center, just a wide circumference of friends. Most of the time he just asks questions. And to find his own center he must redefine his notion of "company."

The inside-out, plot-less form makes Company the first de-centered Broadway musical and anticipates postmodernism by many a year.


Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town, playing though August 18.

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