Theater

Review: Sondheim and Weidman's 'Road Show' at the Public Theater

Alma Cuervo, front, and Michael Cerveris, spotlighted, in
Alma Cuervo, front, and Michael Cerveris, spotlighted, in "Road Show" (known aliases: "Gold!," "Wise Guys" and "Bounce"). The show proves that even geniuses like Stephen Sondheim can have trouble letting go of a bad idea. (By Joan Marcus -- Public Theater Via Associated Press)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NEW YORK -- If a show's lengthy list of working titles is any measure of the often arduous, sweat-and-blood effort to get a musical right, then Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman have to be one the most tenacious writing teams in the history of the American theater.

In its embryonic state back in the '90s, the work -- based on the lives of a pair of scheming, high-flying brothers -- went by the name "Gold!" In its early developmental phase, it became "Wise Guys." Five years ago, it bowed at the Kennedy Center as "Bounce." And now, after yet another fairly extreme makeover, it has materialized off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater under the new title "Road Show."

At the energy that the titanic Sondheim has invested in this rather Quixotic endeavor, the shoulders sag and the head droops. For in its umpteenth incarnation, "Gold!/Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show" remains a deflating experience, a sour and strained musical biography. You're compelled to wonder whether the story of the Mizner brothers -- a tale that Sondheim has been fascinated by since he first read about them a half-century ago in the New Yorker -- was ever really something that could be coaxed into inimitable song.

"Road Show" is a jaundiced chronological account, coarser and seamier than the previous version, of a pair of fortune-seeking brothers in the early 20th century, when capitalistic excess was all the rage. Toward the Mizners' hucksterism and opportunism, the musical raises a perpetual eyebrow.

The latest title is derived from the transient, metastasizing character of the brothers' restless quest: Wilson (Michael Cerveris) is the slicker of the two, a feckless operator who goes from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next. He's deeply resented by Addison (Alexander Gemignani), the more sensitive and artistic one, not least because Mama Mizner (Alma Cuervo) has a softer spot for the son -- isn't it the way? -- who's less worthy of her affection.

The brothers' symbiotic neediness, for mom's love and for posthumous approval from their demanding father (William Parry), draws them inexorably back into each other's orbits. The question "Road Show," in all its permutations, has never been able to address satisfactorily, however, is: What about these two wise guys would compel us to take such a long, luxurious look into their troubled psyches?

As portrayed in British director John Doyle's stark, conceptual production, Wilson and Addison are emblematic of the downside of that American archetype, the self-made man. Their biggest claim to fame here is their large-scale real-estate dream, of luring buyers to their new sunbaked Florida magnet, Boca Raton. That it is merely Boca Raton is a problem, for though "Road Show" intends to depict their big plan as shabby and hollow -- the new opening number is called "Waste" -- the fact that the venture blows up in their faces is of meager dramatic impact. The details of their failure come across as just that: incidental plot points in an episodic treatment of their lives.

Cerveris and Gemignani are veterans of such grand Sondheim offerings as the 2004 Broadway revival of "Assassins" and Doyle's Tony-winning 2005 staging of "Sweeney Todd," in which the actors played their own instruments. (Doyle drops that device here, staging this musical, now a one-act, on a set stacked with desks and filing cabinets -- a city of drawers.) The actors provide handsomely sung, if less than temperamentally persuasive, performances. Cerveris's Wilson, in particular, is a bit twee for such a hardened, earthy rogue.

Visitors to the Kennedy Center version will recall "Bounce" as a somewhat jaunty, overblown evening, with a theme that had something to do with the resilience of the brothers (an oddly paired Richard Kind and Howard McGillin). The significantly revised show has dialed down the comic portions and pumped up its more salacious and lugubrious tendencies. Creepy intimations of incest now slip in, as when the brothers, prospecting gold in Alaska, have to share a sleeping bag, an arrangement in which Addison takes far too much pleasure.

Sondheim and book writer Weidman have excised a supporting character, Wilson's love interest, with whom he sang the show's premier ballad, the lustrous "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." It is now the exclusive musical property of Addison and his boyfriend, Hollis (Claybourne Elder), a rich kid Addison meets on the train to Florida; Addison persuades Hollis to bankroll his ambitions as an architect to the Palm Beach elite.

The show's streamlining -- it runs under two hours -- is a positive step, though even at that length, the story of the Mizner boys overstays its welcome. To be sure, a Sondheim score is as close to a rock-solid insurance policy as the musical theater offers. Still, like so much of what's chronicled in "Road Show," it's an asset that the Mizners manage to squander.

Road Show, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman. Directed by John Doyle. Costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. With Aisha de Haas, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Mel Johnson Jr., Anne L. Nathan, William Youmans, Kristine Zbornik. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Dec. 28 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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