For Leigh Barrett, Sondheim is good “Company”

19Feb14

“I’ve been very lucky to do 10 of Mr. Sondheim’s works,” says Leigh Barrett, a 1983 Wakefield High School graduate who has gone on to an award-winning professional career as one of the top leading ladies of Boston’s musical theater scene.

Barrett has won two Elliot Norton Awards for Outstanding Actress (in 2004 and 2007), a 2004 Independent Reviewers of New England (INRE) Award for Best Supporting Actress and a 2006 INRE Award for Outstanding Actress.

leigh_barrettShe is currently starring in Moonbox Productions‘ presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Set in Manhattan, Company revolves around the handsome and successful Bobby and his social circle of married and soon-to-be married couples. As his 35th birthday celebration approaches, his three very different girlfriends join the rest of his inner circle in wondering why Bobby hasn’t yet settled into one serious relationship. What emerges is a touching and often hilarious meditation on love, marriage and the role of “company” in our lives.

Although Company was written in 1970, Barrett says that today’s audiences have no trouble relating to its themes.

“The idea that people are looking to make connections in their lives, whether romantic or otherwise, is timeless,” Barrett observes. “I think in the age of technology and social media, it actually may be harder to make a real human connection. And the dysfunction in relationships of any kind is universal.”

Barrett plays Joanne – boozy, brutally forthright and somewhat older than Booby’s other acquaintances. On her third marriage, Joanne comes by her cynicism and vodka stinger personality naturally.

“Joanne’s best quality, I think, is that she’s honest,” Barrett says, “whether you want to hear it or not, or whether you agree with her or not. She’s also fiercely loyal. Her worst quality is that she’s brutally honest and she appears to not care how her opinion affects you. Notice I say, ‘appears.’”

Barrett says that playing Joanne presents some unique challenges.

“When I play a character like Joanne, I’m always trying to strike a balance between being too harsh and not harsh enough,” Barrett explains, “to make sure that she has a humanity. And it’s a challenge to take on an iconic character with an iconic song.”

The iconic song that Barrett refers to is “Ladies Who Lunch,” made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original Broadway production of Company. The song comes toward the end of the show, and it starts out as a caustic criticism of rich women who waste their days on luncheons and other frivolous activities and ends with Joanne sadly realizing that she is one of those women.

Barrett has developed an approach to singing a song made famous by someone else.

“I have to make it my own,” Barrett says. “I don’t start out trying to do that, you know, in some ‘artsy way’ to put my own spin on it just because…but it’s the only thing I CAN do. I’m me, I’m not them. I have my own experiences and I’m not about to imitate what someone else did.

“It’s also a challenge to wait until 10:30 p.m. to sing your big number,” Barrett says. “I do find Joanne creeping into my everyday. I never knew I was quite so “method” or could be quite so ‘Joanne!’”

Company was one of Sondheim’s first big successes and marks the beginning of what critics regard as his most creatively prolific period.

“I pretty much love anything that Sondheim writes because he writes for the thinking actor,” Barrett says. “The music serves the action and vice-versa. I love to act in the spaces – to continue to tell the story in the interval between the lines. Sondheim is brilliant with that. For whatever reason, I understand his characters. I’m not sure what that says about me,” she adds with a laugh.

While she’s on familiar territory with Sondheim, Company marks Barrett’s first time working with Moonbox Productions.

“It’s always great to meet and work with new people,” Barrett says. “I’ve worked with some of these artists before and some on the creative team for Company. They are deeply respectful of the actor and very passionate about their work.”

Barrett says that people should come and see Company for both the music and the storytelling. Audiences will hear familiar songs, she says, that they may not have realized originated with Company.

Barrett also encourages people to see the show “because there are a lot of good storytelling actors who care deeply about telling it. And people should see it because it’s Sondheim!”

With all her success, Leigh Barrett has never forgotten her hometown and typically appears in Wakefield several times a year to lend her talents to local charitable causes.

“You should never forget where you came from and how you got where you are today,” Barrett stresses. “I have a great love for my hometown and I’d love to do more if I can. I think it’s enormously important to give back in any way you can, because it’s your responsibility as an artist to share what you’ve been given.”

[Company runs through March 1 at the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston’s South End. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $40-$45 and available online through Boston Theatre Scene Box Office or call BTS box office at 617-933-8600.]

[This story originally appeared in the February 19, Wakefield Daily Item.]

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