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Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Road Show has been a sort of road show itself for years, beginning with a 1999 workshop production under the title Wise Guys, starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, at New York Theatre Workshop. The show has bounced around ever since, with 2003 productions in Chicago and Washington, D.C., of a revised version titled, yes, Bounce, and a 2008 off-Broadway production of yet another version at the Public Theater, directed by John Doyle and starring Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani.
Based on real-life siblings Addison and Wilson Mizner (if you’ve ever been to South Florida, you’ll have heard the name), it’s one of those rare Sondheim musicals that never got produced on Broadway. But it’s come just a little bit closer with the current Encores! Off-Center revival, receiving a brief four-day run.
It would be a pleasure to report that this latest incarnation has magically solved the troubled musical’s problems. But it’s more accurate to say that the Encores production lives up to its mandate by providing a fresh look at a show that deserves to be seen despite its significant flaws. The third collaboration between Sondheim and Weidman after Pacific Overtures and Assassins, Road Show is far from either man’s best work, but it definitely has its interesting aspects.
The disjointed musical depicts the picaresque adventures of the siblings who traveled throughout the country, and the world, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make their fortunes. That the relationship between Wilson (Raúl Esparza) and his brother Addison (Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This) is complicated, to say the least, becomes evident throughout their journeys, beginning in Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush and ultimately winding up in Florida, where they become instrumental figures in the 1920s land boom that led to such upscale communities as Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
As the show presents them, Addison fulfills his goals by becoming a rich and famous architect, while Wilson, who never met a con he didn’t like, indulges in a series of failed ventures that eventually make him a broken man.
The other major characters in the piece are the siblings’ parents Papa (Chuck Cooper), who dies early on but continues to exhort his sons to make something of themselves from beyond the grave, and Mama (a luminous Mary Beth Peil, The Good Wife), who clearly favors Wilson despite his wicked ways; and Hollis (Jin Ha, M. Butterfly), a rich young man with whom Addison develops a romantic relationship that proves financially beneficial as well.
Director-choreographer Will Davis’ chief conceit is presenting the action as a radio play, complete with vintage microphones and the actors frequently holding scripts in hand (a helpful crutch, since they had very limited rehearsal time). But the device loses effectiveness due to its inconsistency; sometimes the performers stand in front of their mics as if really acting in a radio drama, and other times they engage with each other in more conventional theatrical fashion.
Devoid of scenery except for a series of oversized postcards representing the many changes of locale, the production, like the others in the summer series, is more a concert version than a full-fledged staging, despite the occasional bursts of choreography.
Although it features many colorful episodes, Weidman’s book proves unsatisfying both in its convoluted, frequently confusing narrative and its schematic characterizations. We never become emotionally involved in the fates of the two brothers, and such would-be powerful moments as Addison bitterly fooling his returned sibling into kissing their mother who, unbeknownst to him, has just died, feel contrived.
Sondheim’s score bears his distinct style, to a fault. The music sounds derivative of many of his other works but lacks the memorable melodies that would make any of the songs truly stand out. The lyrics display flashes of his brilliance, however, and there are a few worthwhile numbers, such as “Isn’t He Something,” Mama Mizner’s loving ode to Wilson, gorgeously sung by Peil; and “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened,” a moving love song delivered in tender fashion by Uranowitz and Ha. While the orchestra for this production is smaller than the ones employed by the regular Encores series, the music sounds wonderful in Jonathan Tunick’s superb orchestrations.
The production gains immeasurably from the lead performances. Esparza mines his bottomless charisma to terrific effect, entertainingly finding the dark humor in Wilson’s tragic flaws, and Uranowitz brings a gripping emotional complexity to Addison, who ultimately reveals himself to be just as capable of casual cruelty as his brother. Ha is deeply sympathetic as the idealistic Hollis, and Peil and Cooper make strong impressions in their supporting turns.
“Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right,” says Wilson in the very last line of the evening. The line smacks of wishful thinking, since even this solid, no-frills production doesn’t quite manage to make the case for the problematic show.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Chuck Cooper, Raúl Esparza, Jin Ha, Mary Beth Peil, Brandon Uranowitz, Brandon Contreras, Rheaume Crenwhaw, Daniel J. Edwards, Marina Kondo, Jay Lusteck, Liz McCartney, Matt Moisey, Shereen Pimentel, Sharone Sayegh, Vishal Vaidya
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Director-choreographer: Will Davis
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunic
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Presented by Encores! Off-Center