Michael Cerveris, Alma Cuervo, Aisha de Haas, Claybourne Elder, Colleen Fitzpatrick, David Garry, Alexander Gemignani, Mylinda Hull, Mel Johnson, Jr., Orville Mendoza, Anne L. Nathan, Tom Nelis, William Parry, Matthew Stocke, Katrina Yaukey, William Youmans, Kristine Zbornik
“You and me against the world,” Wilson Mizner sings to his brother Addison throughout composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter John Weidman’s new musical Road Show, now playing at the Public Theater under the direction of John Doyle, the latest in-vogue director of Sondheim-penned shows.
It’s this enterprising spirit that infuses this distinctly American musical about the enterprising Mizner brothers, little-known pioneers who, over a century ago, were swept up in the dream of the new frontier.
Road Show is not this material’s first incarnation. The property, which has been a pet project of Sondheim’s for years, had its first Sam Mendes-directed, Broadway-bound workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop in 1999, (then titled Wise Guys) with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as its Mizners.
But after that reading proved unsatisfactory, the show was once again shelved, not to see the light of day again until 2003, when Hal Prince helmed a fully staged production of the piece (retitled Bounce) at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago that went on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. before once again stalling just short of Broadway. Finally, in the hands of John Doyle, the show now known as Road Show seems to have found its ideal intepreter.
The show is about two enterprising brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner, whose lives diverge and intersect as they partake in, first, the Gold Rush in the Yukon at the turn of the century, and, later, the Land Boom of the 1910s and 1920s, where they teamed up in the hopes of creating a “Versailles by the Florida sea” in the form of resort town Boca Raton, Florida.
There are, of course, obstacles along the way. Wilson, a wannabe playwright and ne’er-do-well, is often wading in whisky and coke-addled, while upstart architect Addison finds himself in a problematic relationship (the first explicitly gay relationship in a Sondheim musical) with wealthy young Hollis Bessemer, to whom he finds himself commiting to a plethora of lofty projects, not all of which he can follow through with.
In the roles of Wilson and Addison respectively, Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, two of Sondheim’s most avid recent interpreters, are perfectly suited to their roles. Gemignani conveys the put-upon side of Addison while never losing sight of his loftier goals. And Cerveris captures the conniving con artist Wilson with a certain lovable note of underachievement. The rest of the ensemble cast is similarly winning, especially Claybourne Elder, who makes a strong impression as fresh-faced Hollis, particularly in the beautiful song Talent, and Alma Cuervo as Mama, who is given another gem of a song in Isn’t He Something.
Marking the first New York premiere of a Stephen Sondheim score since 1994’s Passion, it may be a surprise to audiences that the master of the “great American musical” has written such a hummable score. He’s known for intricate harmonies and character-specific writing, resulting in scores that are first and foremost about character development, sometimes to the discontent of mainstream audiences.
But here Sondheim should please even his most pointed skeptics. The musical themes here are broader, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t complicated. Bold brass and woodwinds support the piece’s go-get-’em spirit perfectly.
John Doyle has conceived the piece as a sort of presentational vaudeville This Is Your Life, in which the dead Mizners find themselves cornered by the ghosts of their past, who bring the stories of their lives back in a flood of memory. Doyle does double duty here, also taking on the set design of the show. In the upstage space, a barricade of sorts has been constructed of crates, filing cabinets, architectural drawer cases, and an antique radio, on which the actors perch, observing the action at hand. Being a show about the Mizners’ financial endeavors, Doyle also keeps money at the forefront; cast members are constantly flinging dollar bills in the air, making a spectacle of their wealth.
While there are some detractions, including the underdevelopment of the Addison-Hollis relationship, there are many more strengths to this piece. While it could never be considered the pinnacle of Sondheim’s career (can one of the shows in his canon be singled out for that distinction?), Road Show hearkens back to the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of Merrily We Roll Along, with a touch of Sunday in the Park with George in Addison’s obsession with his architectural work. By the end of the show, not only have Sondheim, Weidman, and Doyle made us think about the effects of the American Dream on these two larger-than-life brothers; they’ve also left us humming a few of the tunes. Isn’t that something?