The auditorium at the University of Colorado is full of students for this performance of Company: The Musical. Not a parent or a professor in sight, no one who appears older than 25. I see a few young men wandering the aisles looking lost, couples seated quietly together, women with their heads close, chatting and laughing. Everywhere, there's lustrous hair -- dark and sleek, pulling free of rubber bands and scrunchies or curving onto shoulders. Painted toenails peep sexily between sandal straps. This is the world of the healthy, glossy and young.

Company was written in the 1970s, and costumer Britney Rich has dressed the cast in a tasteful version of the much-parodied style of that decade. I'm interested to see how the themes of singleness, coupledom and identity will hold up and how this audience will react to them -- the characters in Company are in their mid-thirties -- and to jokes about hippies, dumb stewardesses, A Chorus Line and a middle-class woman who's yearning for Sara Lee.

The protagonist, Bobby, is 35 and single. As the show opens, he's facing a birthday party, surrounded by loving friends, all of them coupled up. They bring him cake, sing to him and, in a series of short sequential scenes, demonstrate how their marriages work. There's also a trio of young women with whom Bobby has had sexual relationships. As the play progresses, he moves from confusion and ambivalence (What is preventing him from marrying? Is it fear of commitment, fear of women, fear of no longer being himself?) to sadness and an acute sense of time passing. He's surrounded by people who love him; he's everyone's buddy and therapist -- but he's lonely.

Company is early Stephen Sondheim, less shadowed and complex than his later works, but tricky, delightful and clever. The story is told in short scenes interspersed with songs, the music serving as commentary, warning, chorus and counterpoint. The script, by George Furth, is smart but not cynical. Each couple struggles in their own way: Amy and Paul have lived together for years but are afraid to take the next step and marry; Joanne is a bitter alcoholic and a constant trial to her rich husband, Larry; Peter is a closeted, self-deluding homosexual who leaves his wife and children and then returns to them. All of the husbands occasionally wonder what life would have been like if they'd stayed single. But there's a tenderness in every one of the relationships, and Bobby cherishes even the most confused and irritating of the women. He wants in. The other men want out. And then back in. These various maneuverings are well-staged and choreographed by Jessica Hillman, and Charles Koslowske ably leads a seven-piece orchestra.

This is a student production, which means the performances are uneven. The rage and cynicism expressed by Joanne in "The Ladies Who Lunch" isn't entirely credible. There are a couple of stretches where the evening seems long or talky. But many of the performances are very charming, and ultimately the songs carry the day.

I remember seeing this show some time ago, with a Bobby who was short and something of a shlemiel, but Zachary M. Andrews is tall and handsome. He brings a pleasant diffidence to the role, though he could let go a bit more, and sometimes his voice sounds tight. The cast's major voice belongs to Beth Menke, who first takes focus as her character, Jenny, gets high to oblige her husband. It's a sweet, silly scene, and Menke manages to charm us even before she lets fly with her lovely, soaring soprano.

Other high points include "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," sung by Jennifer Dunne, Briann Gagnon and Kelsey Rich -- who play Bobby's three paramours -- with speed, brio and a plethora of demented trills. Rich also has a rather touching scene with Bobby in a park, in which she confesses that she once wanted to marry him, and he responds that he wishes he'd asked. Gagnon plays a stewardess as a dumb but adorable little pixie. Her motel-room speech about a cocoon, a butterfly and a predatory cat is just plain dear.

Among a host of tuneful, seductive songs, "Getting Married Today" stands out. Menke, apparently at the church waiting for the couple to arrive, sings out rapturously, with other cast members forming her choir. The husband-to-be, Paul, played by Jeff Mogab -- who also possesses a rich, ear-filling voice -- carols his joy. But Amanda Olmstead as his bride is half mad with terror. The panicked, staccato patter-song she spits at a startled Bobby provides a stimulating counterpoint and contributes to the multi-layered sound that's one of Sondheim's trademarks.

The cast, being the same age as the audience, is really too young for this show. There's an unformed quality to much of the acting, though you can see that some of these performers may develop into first-rate talents. The actors' youth, however, adds something to the plot, too -- a kind of joy, and also a kind of melancholy. What do these folks, who presumably are just entering the dating game in a serious way, make of Bobby's dilemma?

This is Friends with a brain, Sex and the City with a lot less narcissism. When the music stopped and the audience began streaming out, a few singles looked thoughtful; the pretty girls tossed their hair back and swung their purses; two boys approached a group of girls to discuss where they should meet for a beer; a couple walked hip-to-hip into the night, her head on his shoulder.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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