The setup: If only this latest musical from Stephen Sondheim were his first, then we could hail a rising new talent, instead of having to justify a spinning of his wheels.
Coming from the reigning master of the American musical (Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, Pacific Overtures, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), this show is mighty disappointing. What Stages Repertory Theatre does to it, though, is tremendously impressive. The staging throws off plenty of heat and pizzazz, while the show keeps circling back on itself in an endless loop. It travels all over the globe, following the exploits and dreams of the ill-fated real-life Mizner brothers, but never goes anywhere.
The execution: Road Show has been in development hell since it premiered in workshop as Wise Guys in 1999. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman (Assassins; Pacific Overtures) reworked the material, and the next version, called Bounce, opened and quickly closed in Chicago and Washington in 2003.
Reworked again and retitled Road Show, the musical, now without intermission or its female leading role, opened off-Broadway in 2008 and closed after a month. Sondheim & Co. had no more luck in London in 2011, although the musical played two months this time. Stages' production is the first American regional premiere of this latest version. Scrumptiously produced, Road Show still needs work.
A show that begins with its lead character dead with everyone singing what a "Waste" his life has been, doesn't seem to have much more to tell us. The former wise-guys with bounce are a dim memory.
Addison Mizner (L. Jay Meyer), renowned '20s architect, single-handedly revived stucco and wrought iron in his fairy-tale palaces for the rich on Long Island and in Palm Beach. His opulent designs incorporated Mediterranean and Moorish details, lush gardens, and stone colonnades -- one of his estates in Palm Beach had a forty-car garage. He was also a con man deluxe, single-handedly responsible for the pre-Depression collapse of banks in Florida and Georgia due to his corrupt real estate ventures in Boca Raton.
Brother Wilson (Tom Frey) was just as shady but perhaps more colorful. A swindler who learned his trade from the Yukon's master of skullduggery, "Soapy" Smith, he later abetted Addison in swindling the swells of Palm Beach, ran drugs, took drugs, and ended up a screenwriter in Hollywood, giving Warner Bros. and MGM an electric jolt of pre-Code jazz (20,000 Years in Sing Sing; One Way Passage; Frisco Jenny), all while he co-owned and managed the famous Brown Derby restaurant.
These guys are ripe for Sondheim's patented musical treatment. They get only a shadow of what they richly deserve. The juicy historical facts are glossed over, neglected, or turned on their head in this padded, busy musical. Addison was no milquetoast dreamer when he went to Florida at age 46, he was already feted, rich, and adored in society circles because of his architecture in New York. Wilson is treated with a bit more accuracy, as a coked-up bon vivant always on the make, and never down for long.
Sondheim and Weidman turn the brothers into symbolic twins, joined at the subconscious. Addison is whiny and schoolmarmish, Wilson slick and smarmy. They love each other, they hate each other, they're inseparable even when apart. They're given the patina of American strivers, knocked down and trod over, but forever going on, using each other as crutch and bludgeon in their far-off quest for happiness just down the road.
The musical catches fire about half-way through the ninety-minute work when Addison travels to Palm Beach, meets young dreamer Hollis Bessemer (Michael McClure) on the train and falls in love. ("Talent," Hollis's telling self-reflection where he accepts his lack of talent, is wondrously scored with a train's rhythmic rocking in the background.) Addison's sudden attack of gayness comes out of nowhere, unless you accept the authors' dubious premise that has portrayed him as the ultimate interior decorator ("Addison's Trip"), or the ultimate fawning mother's boy who must listen patiently as Mom praises her other, exciting son ("Isn't He Something"). Sung by Susan Shofner, this is one of Sondheim's loveliest ballads, elegiac, tinged with irony, with the perfect hint of period flavor.
The Palm Beach sequence is the most lively, for it contains the musical's most pointed humor, as Addison's designs are projected for the society harpies who ooh and aah over each more outlandish faux palazzo. Played for laughs, the scene undercuts the blossoming realization of Addison and Hollis's attraction ("You"), another beauty in the score. Sondheim makes amends by quickly throwing in another winner for the duo ("The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened") to seal their love affair.
After a tiresome sequence about the founding of Boca Raton, the real estate boom and bust, and a lengthy radio ad meant to lure the unsuspecting to their speculative city of the future, the brothers revert to their mutual destructive pattern, and poor Hollis is quickly out in the cold. When Addison curtly dismisses his lover, who sees his own dreams vanish under the brothers' greed and criminal behavior, all sympathy we might have had for Addison goes with him. Not only is he a prig, he's an unfeeling prig. The musical takes a swift kick to the head as our co-leading character comes up short. For all his venality, Wilson remains unscathed, since he's such a charming cad. He is what he is. He doesn't change, but at least he has edges, lots of them.
Director Kenn McLaughlin, doing his best work since Grey Gardens, bedazzles with stagecraft. He's responsible for whatever singing this show has, not Sondheim or Weidman. The staging never stops, which wisely leaves us no time to think what a little piece of work this sketchy show really is. Except for those exceptionally fine ballads, the music is a parody of what Sondheim sounds like. The lyrics, unlike the master's best, are perfunctory when not downright tired: "extends...bends...and ends" is just as trite as the cliché of "June...moon...spoon." Connecting scenes are missing, or intentionally constructed to be creepy -- what's with that sleeping bag scene between the brothers? -- and there's a lot of filler instead of action.
Meyer, as Addison, seems worn out from the beginning, too old for the young dreamer in California. It's not his fault. Since his character never gets out of the rut the authors put him in, there's no place for him to go. When he turns on innocent Hollis without so much as a subtext to get him there, we don't care what happens to him. Frey comes off better because dissolute Wilson is such a natural scene stealer. He, too, may only be cardboard, but he's got color, unlike Addison's wimpy grey. McClure has the freshness of youth and a handsome tenor to see him through. His Hollis, dressed in Kris Hanssen's crisp vested suit, has stepped off the silver screen. Throughout, Hanssen's costumes are spot-on.
Shofner makes the most of her haunting number, while Jimmy F. Phillips, as Dad, stirs the boys to follow their dreams ("It's in Your Hands Now") and then keeps reappearing, like a bad dream, to goad them onward when they backtrack. Among the many fine supporting players, Thomas Prior stands out for his myriad characterizations. The ensemble includes Cameron Bautsch, Bridget Beirne, Hunter Frederick, Sarah Myers, Amanda Parker, Amanda Passanante, and Brandon Whitley, who all play multiple roles. They sing their hearts out under maestro Steven Jones' masterful conducting of his quintet orchestra.
Especially beguiling is the set by Laura Fine Hawkes, a fantasy of crumbling balustrades, construction framework, medieval arches, and multi-leveled areas that allow director McLaughlin to keep everyone in motion.
The verdict: As the brothers meet in heaven, or purgatory, or wherever they are, a light blazes to lead them on. Giddy, Wilson sees this as another scheme, another opportunity, and he grabs Addison to pull him with him. "Sooner or later, we're bound to get it right." It's the musical's last line and also its epitaph. The brothers aren't on the road, they're on a treadmill, still waiting for Sondheim to take them to the promised land. So are we.
Sondheim's latest work about the wayward Mizner brothers and their love/hate relationship with the American dream sings through June 30 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $23-$43.