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Editorial Review

Simply Sondheim
The Musical Master's First in Nine Years Just Doesn't Have the Old 'Bounce'
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2003; Page C01

Deep in the second act of "Bounce," sleeping giants stir. We're at a posh hotel restaurant in Palm Beach, Fla., where an ambitious architect is laying out the blueprints for a grand home for one of the vacationing swells. Peering over his shoulder, other guests, captivated by his designs, sing out their desperate wishes for him to build gorgeous new houses for them, too.

The competitive drive unleashed by the singers of "You" -- a kind of paean to overnight success -- accelerates the dreaming of the architect, one Addison Mizner, and the scheming of his brother, Wilson. Soon the brothers' voices are rising afresh to sing about their plans not for a cluster of homes but for a whole city, a place where their obsessive lifelong aspirations, for respect, for acceptance, for love, for money, can all be satisfied.

The verve and intelligence informing these scenes are gloriously familiar. For the giants in question here are not Addison and Wilson; they're Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. The long-incubating "Bounce," which has undergone cast, director, song and even title changes, is the composer's first new musical in nine years (his last was the 1994 "Passion"). The production, initially presented in Chicago last summer and now at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is emotionally resonant on other levels: It represents Sondheim's reunion after 22 years with Prince, whom history will doubtless rank as his most important collaborator, the man who shepherded "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Pacific Overtures" and "Sweeney Todd" to Broadway.

The Florida sequence, culminating in "Get Rich Quick," which may be the first production-number salute to real estate, comes as a relief in "Bounce" on two counts. It shows that Sondheim is still an improvisatory wizard with the show tune; the masterly use of lyric to mimic dialogue is at times wonderful. And, to some minor degree, it mitigates the disappointment in virtually all that has come before it. Remember that we are now two hours into "Bounce," and painful as it is to report, the scenes in Florida are the first indication of any theatrical spark in the show. What precedes them is a wan and dramatically shallow musical comedy, the surprisingly uninvolving tale of the rivalry between a mismatched pair of siblings.

The Mizners were real-life characters with a capital C, turn-of-the-20th-century brothers whose zeal to Make It stamped them as paragons of the American quest for success. "Opportunity" is a word repeated so often in "Bounce" -- it also turns up as the title of a song -- that it eventually comes to sound more like the family curse. Addison, portrayed here valiantly by Richard Kind, was a scrappy, visionary architect; Wilson (the handsome, miscast Howard McGillin), a scam artist, bon vivant, street fighter, gold prospector, boxing promoter and, yes, Broadway playwright. Sondheim has said he became intrigued by them as a young man, after their lives were recounted in 1950 in a series of articles in the New Yorker. (There were in reality six Mizner brothers.) Looking over those Alva Johnston pieces today, it's easy to see what struck Sondheim's fancy. They are wall-to-wall colorful, brimming with hilarious, Runyonesque reminiscences and anecdotes.

Larger-than-life is the bread and butter of the American musical, but you can also see that stringing together the Mizners' exploits in a way that tells an urgent story, that makes an audience care about the men, might be a worrisome task. As yet "Bounce" has not solved the problem. The musical's launch pad is Heaven, where the estranged brothers, who have both dropped dead of heart attacks, reconnect. And, in flashback, give us the biographical lowdown of their interwoven journeys. Their opening song, "Bounce," which will be repeated all evening, supplies the leitmotif: They're emblematic of the resilient American soul, men who are capable of pivoting after failure, setting off and starting all over again.

This notion is reinforced in Eugene Lee's clever flyaway scenery. Postcards adorn the set, suggesting a nation on the move; houses and hotels, racetracks and saloons are represented by flats and flimsy drops, the kind you'd find in old-time traveling shows, which is what the Mizners' transient lives often resemble.

But the notion of a bounce also suggests leaving a tiny impression, and that's all that "Bounce" does. The first act is, well, drudgery, and Prince's direction does little to electrify it. (There are dribs and drabs of so-so choreography, attributed to Michael Arnold.) The low point is the long and dreary "Addison's Trip," in which Kind is seen traveling to foreign shores, only to be hoodwinked by a succession of local flimflammers. For some reason, the actor is called on to sing while trying to balance on a seesawing gangplank; those playing the locals look anesthetized.

For all the time we invest in McGillin and Kind, meanwhile, the brothers' relationship never fully takes hold. There's nothing, for instance, to support Addison's inexplicable decision late in the proceedings to side with Wilson against his own lover, played by Gavin Creel, after the plans for developing the Florida city collapse. Moreover, McGillin is never persuasive as a rapacious sleaze. He seems, in fact, quite the pushover, certainly not the guy to bulldoze the solid Kind.

The musical's book writer, John Weidman, who collaborated with Sondheim on "Pacific Overtures" and "Assassins," had to come up with an overarching conflict to propel the tale; what he's settled on might be called the Smothers Brothers Strategy: Mom liked you best. Mom here is played by Jane Powell, who is porcelain-doll exquisite -- not quite the force of nature the musical makes her out to be -- but Sondheim gives her a shimmering ballad, "Isn't He Something!," that expresses the passive-aggressiveness in her character.

It's a trait that she smothers in adorableness. Her song is a knife to the confidence of Addison, to whom she sings it, because it's about Wilson, and it defines the ongoing tension between Wilson and Addison. (What son would ever want to sit through a lullaby inspired by a brother?) "I've had the time of my life, living through him," Powell declares, in a delicate soprano. "Some men live just to sparkle / And doesn't he sparkle? / Doesn't he glide? Isn't he something?"

On a first date with a Sondheim score, you are never going to grasp all the subtleties (which, of course, every Sondheim freak spends the next 20 years cataloguing). What you hear initially are the echoes of other Sondheim shows, and in "Bounce" the associations flow: intimations of a musical line from "Assassins"; a song that reminds you of the cadence of "A Weekend in the Country" from "A Little Night Music"; the thematic connection between the Florida cycle and Sondheim's other songs about creation, such as "Finishing the Hat" from "Sunday in the Park With George."

Although the score is not overwhelming on first hearing, Creel, playing the wealthy young man who becomes Addison's lover -- as far as I can tell, the first openly gay characters in a Sondheim show -- gets a lovely solo, "Talent," about the abandoning of dreams. And the signature duet, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is potent and memorable, and well-handled as it is sung by McGillin and Michelle Pawk, who is as strong as she could possibly be in the mostly superfluous role of the love of Wilson's life.

Whether this production's imperfections are fixable -- no decision has been made, apparently, about taking it to Broadway -- is unclear. But it is here for another couple of weeks, and despite the flaws, anyone with a love for Sondheim's art is advised not to let this opportunity pass. As others have noted, half a cup of Sondheim is still enriched by a beguiling ingredient: Sondheim.

Bounce, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography, Michael Arnold; sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, Howell Binkley; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; sound, Duncan Robert Edwards; musical direction, David Caddick. With Herndon Lackey. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Nov. 16 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.