Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

On the Road, Again

November 16, 2008

Michael Cerveris in Road Show
Photo: Joan Marcus 2008

While in New York last week, I did manage to catch one of the previews of the “new” Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Road Show, which will open Tuesday at The Public Theater. As has been incredibly well documented, this work has been tossed around over a decade in several incarnations including runs under the title Bounce in Washington, DC and Chicago in 2003 where it did not fare particularly well. While I saw neither of those productions and cannot give you a fanatic's blow-by-blow account of the changes, I can tell you that the show based on the lives of the Mizner brothers is honed down to a tighter, sharper 100 minute or so single act in a staging by John Doyle. The cast is different, as well, now featuring several recent prominent Sondheim/Doyle collaborators including Michael Cerveris as Wilson Mizner and Alexander Gemignani as his brother Addison. Road Show now focuses exclusively on the brothers, their parents, and Addison’s lover Hollis Bessemer with all other bit parts being handled in quick dispatch by one of the ten immensely talented chorus members.

Whether or not all of these changes will result in a better reception or a hit for its authors will probably depend on the biggest change of all – the historical context in which the story now surfaces. Road Show is still picaresque, recounting the Mizners' numerous get-rich-quick adventures but focuses more sharply on two schemes, their Yukon gold mining expedition and, more presciently, the rise and dramatic fall of a huge real estate bubble in Boca Raton, Florida. Hard to tell if audiences are ready for a “light-hearted and fundamentally playful” (in the words of Oskar Eustis) musical about the economic anxieties they can read about every morning in the paper. This is a Sondheim musical, however, so do take all that light-hearted stuff with a grain of salt. Road Show is still a very biting critique of the American dream and psyche and can be quite dark in some of its cocaine-fueled manic moments. But despite a raft of quintessential Sondheim musical numbers and really great performances, I never felt the show grabbed me as a whole. Like Assassins, Road Show relies more on a narrative constructed out of fantasy and ideas than events. But where as the former could feel like a punch in the gut you could laugh about, the latter is more a slap on the wrist with a smile.

All that being said, the quality of this production is incredibly high. John Doyle’s set is a mountain of crates and file cabinets scaled by the cast and containing any number of wondrous props. The late 19th/early 20th century costumes are necessarily drab, but can set off a little bit of color with minimal effort. Much of that color is green and comes in the form of seemingly endless amounts of paper money being thrown into the air by somebody every few minutes. It’s a gesture that got a little tired, but admittedly this could be changed by this week’s opening. There are songs that are still among the composer’s best such as “You” the gay love song between Hollis and Addison and Mama Mizner’s “Isn’t He Something”. So, taking that into consideration, Road Show is definitely worth seeing and is never boring even if it isn’t entirely satisfying either. Whether or not that’s enough to sell this dream to a larger audience remains to be seen.

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