A year ago, Jim Coleman was beginning a stay at Lincoln Square to recover from a fall down the stage steps that fractured his left tibia in three places.

In the midst of directing “A Little Night Music,” Coleman had to turn over the reins of the Stephen Sondheim musical to Stockton Civic Theatre’s new artistic director, Dennis Beasley.  

Now, a severe right knee sprain suffered in January while directing “South Pacific” in Rohnert Park behind him, Coleman is back at the helm of an SCT show directing “Company,” another Sondheim show, which opens on Friday.

“It’s the first time in a year I haven’t had a cane or walker,” Coleman said. “I’m still slow but the physical therapy is helping.”

His physical tribulations have not interfered with his ability to put on a show, especially one by Sondheim, a friend from his days in New York when Coleman was selected as musical director of the national tour of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

“ ‘Company’ is a joyous experience,” Coleman said.

The 1970 musical comedy is a nonlinear “concept musical.” It’s an exploration of marriage through the eyes of Bobby, a 35-year-old single man who can’t commit to a serious relationship and whose perspective is shaped by his friendships with five married couples. On the occasion of his annual surprise birthday party, he begins exploring their married lives and the history he’s shared with them.

“It’s funny, hysterically funny,” Coleman said. “You can come and enjoy it on an entertainment level and also enjoy the underlying story if you want to think about it. In 1970 a lot of people thought it was anti-marriage. They tacked this kind of happy ending to it that didn’t really work. He revised it in 1995. It’s not anti-marriage. Society has come a long way since then. People come to laugh at themselves a little bit. They realize it’s not anti-marriage, it’s truthful. Every couple has their things. Some are funny. Some are more serious.”

The show is also Sondheim at his most accessible, Coleman said. It was the the second show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, the first being “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.”

For Thomas Smith, who plays Bobby, that it’s a Sondheim show as enough to draw him to auditions.

“(Sondheim) is all I do,” Smith said. “The complexity is the main thing. When it comes to some musicals, things can get repetitive and boring. His music is always interesting. No matter how many times I rehearse, I never tire of it. The lyrics do a good job of developing characters in the songs in an interesting way.”

Smith’s appreciation of Sondheim began when he was a business student at University of the Pacific and Jim Haffner was staging Sondheim’s “Assassins.”

The Angels Camp product was feeling a little empty that freshman year and a friend told him about the show. When he realized a nontheater major could participate, he auditioned.

“I knew nothing about it. I’d only done one musical in high school and it was ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’ ” Smith said. “I did the stupidest audition. Not knowing him at the time, I was singing ‘Agony’ (from ‘Into the Woods’) and was doing both parts. I got into the show and I was blown away by the music. I’ve always been a music person, a musician. That primarily was what I was interested in. I was blown away by Jim Haffner and that production.”

It prompted him to participate in more Pacific productions and to buy copies of all of Sondheim’s musicals.

When Coleman directed “Sweeney Todd” at SCT in 2012, it was the first time Smith audition for the company. He returned last year for “A Little Night Music.” In between, he performed in “Into the Woods” at San Joaquin Delta College, during which he proposed to Lydia Kaye. The couple married in 2015 and are parents of 9-month-old Phoebe. Kaye, who starred as Mary Poppins and was in “White Christmas” among other SCT productions, plays Jenny, one of Bobby’s married friends.

“When Lydia and I did ‘Into the Woods,’ I was more in my Bobby phase,” Smith notes.

As he was asking Kaye to marry him, Smith was portraying the baker, a happy new father raising a baby.

Now, happily married and often rehearsing while carrying Phoebe in a snuggy sack, Smith is playing a man unable to commit.

“This is a dream role for me,” Smith said.

Although Bobby never leaves the stage, Coleman said the show is a true ensemble piece.

“Everybody has a time to shine,” Coleman said. “There’s no chorus, There are three girls who do backup singing but I’ve put them in a few scenes so they can be on stage. Everybody has their big scene or moments, which makes it nice. All the parts are good.”

That Coleman is returning to SCT for a Sondheim show is only fitting. He said being back as a director is like going home.

“You’re always going to hear some amazing stories that you’re not going to hear from too many other people,” Smith said of having Coleman direct a Sondheim show. “His intimate knowledge of the music is so cool. I remember during ‘Sweeney Todd’ struggling with this one note and I told him I needed help finding the note and walked to the piano and plucked out the part. ‘I said, ‘you know that off the top of your head?’ and he looked at me like I was an idiot. Of course he knew it. I thought he’d get the music and look at it. It’s something special to have somebody who knows it backwards and forwards.”

And once again able to share it standing on his own two feet.

 

Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or lgilbert@recordnet.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.