Monday, August 01, 2011

Last week it was time to return to the Menier for the first time in over a year - since the debacle that was PARADISE FOUND in fact. It was to see another musical but this one actually lived up to it's hype, Stephen Sondheim's ROAD SHOW. It took a long time to get here.

In 1999 Sondheim and John Weidman (his book writer on PACIFIC OVERTURES and ASSASSINS) staged a workshop of the show under the title WISE GUYS with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as the real-life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner which foundered afterwards during a legal dispute with producer Scott Rudin.

But Sondheim, who had become intrigued with the story of the brothers as early as the 1950s, did not give up and in 2003 the show appeared in Chicago then Washington as BOUNCE with Richard Kind and Howard McGillin as the warring brothers with a supporting cast including Jane Powell as their mother, Gavin Creel as Addison's gay lover and Michelle Pawk as Wilson's mistress.Despite being directed by Sondheim's long-time collaborator Hal Prince, the show received middling reviews and never made it to Broadway although the score was recorded.

After the success of his minimalist SWEENEY TODD, director John Doyle was asked to work on the troublesome show with Weidman and the new revised ROAD SHOW opened in 2008 off-Broadway and won both the Obie and Drama Desk Awards for Best Lyrics.

The new production dropped the role of the mistress - and the interval - and concentrated more on the relationship between the brothers and their ever-present mother and father's ghosts. This is the version that has appeared at the Menier.John Doyle's production is staged traverse-style so the audience is fully involved with the action, mostly being pelted with dollar bills that are thrown around by the Mizners regularly, nicely illustrating their approach to money, especially Wilson's - it's only money, there's always some sucker to fleece it from.

The brothers are delightfully played by Michael Jibson as the quiet architect Addison and David Bedella as the devil-may-care Wilson, both in their own way obsessively chasing the road to fame and fortune promised them by their dying father. Again the closeness of the audience to the actors was rewarded by the subtle playing of Jibson in particular, as well as the always fine Gillian Bevan as Mrs. Mizner. Her solo number "Isn't He Something!" was performed beautifully, making the mother's love for her wastrel son fully believable.
Glyn Kerslake was effective as the Mizner's father, dying early but hovering around the action disapproving as his sons fail at his dreams for them and Jon Robyns was charismatic as Hollis the rich boy who is the love of Addison's life.

The ensemble did sterling work, Fiona Dunn in particular was great fun as a Florida snob who engages Addison to build her a dream house.

I wasn't a fan of Doyle's SWEENEY TODD but here his direction keeps the show moving while also illuminating the dynamic of the brother's relationship with small but telling touches.Although I liked the BOUNCE cast recording it never really settled in my mind but here the score struck me as the natural progression from ASSASSINS and PASSION. By turns melodic, funny, tart and insightful, the score also includes one of Sondheim's most lovely songs "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened". Originally sung in BOUNCE by Wilson and his mistress, here the song has been moved to Addison and Hollis and makes much more sense dramatically.

I suspect ROAD SHOW will not get too many outings down the years but it is a worthy addition to Sondheim's body of work and, like it's odd central characters, is proof that there is always another chance when it looks like something has failed.

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