November 19, 2008

Going the Distance with "Road Show"

I’ve traveled a long way with Road Show, the new Stephen Sondheim musical that opened at The Public Theater last night. As every self-respecting theater lover knows, Road Show is the pet project that Sondheim has been nurturing for over 50 years. It has undergone at least four major revisions in just the last 10. But the show has always revolved around Wilson and Addison Mizner, peripatetic brothers who became infamous for their Florida land scams during the 1920s.

The real-life Addison and Wilson were just two of eight siblings but Sondheim and his frequent book writer John Weidman get rid of the other six and focus on Addison, a sometime businessman and s
elf-taught architect, and Wilson, who, among other things, was a professional gambler and prize fight manager, a writer for Broadway and Hollywood, and an opium addict and con man. For Sondheim, it seems, they symbolize the flip sides of the entrepreneurial spirit that defined America in the 20th century.

I’d never head of the Mizners but on the surface they seemed no less worthy of a musical than the presidential assassins who tell another part of the American story in Sondheim’s Assassins. And that show's perverseness had appealed to me. So I to
ok my first trip with the Mizner brothers in 1999 by going down to the East Village to see a New York Theatre Workshop production of their story directed by Sam Mendes and starring Nathan Lane as Addison and Victor Garber as Wilson.

Back then the show was called Wise Guys. And even its supporting cast—which included Brooks Ashmanskas, Kevin Chamberlin, and Christopher Fitzgerald—betrayed its Broadway ambitions. But those were quickly thwarted by an appropriately tepid response from just about everyone who saw it. I recall running into a friend in the theater party business who gave me the thumbs down as we all filed dejectedly out of the theater. But something good did come out of that production: Lane and Garber later became
a romantic couple.

And Sondheim held on to his love for the show. A new version, helmed by his frequent collaborator Hal Prince and with Richard Kind as Addison and Howard McGillin as Wilson, surfaced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2003 and then made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where I and my always-indulgent husband K went to see it.

For a time, the show had been renamed Gold!. But by the time K and I saw it, the title was Bounce, after a new song that Sondheim had written and that opened the show. And that wasn’t the only change. Michelle Pawk had joined the cast in the newly conceived role of Nellie, a love interest for Wilson. Bounce was better than Wise Guys but the word-of-mouth still wasn’t buoyant enough. [Click here to
read an exhaustively chronicled history of the show assembled by a devoted fan.]

Now, director John Doyle, whose revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company were so praised, has taken control. The show is called Road Show. Pawk is gone and so is her character. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” the gorgeous ballad that Nellie and Wilson sang to one another is now a duet for Addison and his male lover.

The production is darker and more stylized than the earlier versions. Instead of Prince’s fully staged interpretation, which included big song-and-dance numbers, we get one of those chamber musicals in which Doyle specializes. The brightly colored costumes and multiple sets of the Prince version have been
replaced by an antique brown palate used for both the costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward, and the set, a heap of discarded furniture that Doyle designed himself.

The cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, are all visible in the wings before the show starts. And once on stage, they’re directed to perform all kinds of superfluous stage business. In case you don’t get that the Mizners are obsessed with money, everyone throws around what amounts to a virtual blizzard of dollar bills. Much of it lands in the front rows of the audience and my theatergoing buddy Bill got whacked on the leg by a bundle during the early preview performance we attended. He took it home as a souvenir but it seems as though so many folks were pocketing the fake bills that Esther of Gratuitous Violins told us the ushers at the performance she saw last week asked people to give them back at the end of the show.

Because so few people know who the Mizners were a lot of Road
Show’s dialog and lyrics are devoted to expository stuff (we may not have known all of the main characters in Assassins but at least we knew the guys they were trying to kill). And since the show has been paired down from over two hours to 100 intermissionless minutes there isn’t much time for character development. So we don't really get to know the brothers as much as we’d like and we don't really care for them as much as we should. That we do at all is a tribute to the remarkable performances that Alexander Gemingnani and Michael Cerveris give as Addison and Wilson. They are hands down the best of the three pairs I’ve seen.

But not even their bravura work has won over the critics, most of whom have spent their reviews lamenting that the first new Sondheim work in 14 years and possibly the last (the maestro is 78) is so unsatisfying. Of course, this isn't the first Sondheim show to disappoint the critics when it first opened. Genius that he is, he tends to be so far ahead of the rest of us that it takes time for us to catch up and appreciate what he’s created. What may be different this time, though, is that we’ve already had 10 years to get in step with Road Show.


Esther said...

Thanks for the background. Wow, I would love to have seen some of the earlier incarnations of this musical with the cast members you mentioned. (Although I thought Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani were terrific.)

This was my first experience with Road Show and I really enjoyed it, for some of the reasons you mentioned. I like the way it explored the underside of the American Dream and Americans' capacity to remake ourselves over and over again and how the entrepreneurial spirit can be used for good or ill.

The duet between Addison and his lover is beautiful. I didn't realize that it had originally been written for a man and a woman! And I really liked the big production number with Wilson in New York.

Also, I loved the fact that Road Show is being performed in such an intimate space.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it was written for two men and sung by two men in Wise Guys. Then it went hetero, before going back to its roots.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

B&M, Thanks for sharing the wonderful history on your own experience with the ever-evolving show. I'm looking forward to seeing the latest incarnation having experienced Bounce in Chicago.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Esther and Steve, it's always great to hear from you guys. But a special welcome and thanks to Wendywriter for helping to set us straight, so to speak, about "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." Wendy, please keep reading and letting me know when I've gone astray. Cheers, jan