Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show [Menier Chocolate Factory]

Road Show
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick [European premiere]

Wilson Mizner – David Bedella
Addison Mizner – Michael Jibson
Hollis Bessemer – Jon Robyns
Mama Mizner – Gillian Bevan
Papa Mizner – Glyn Kerslake
Other parts played by Adrian der Gregorian, Fiona Dunn, Sarah Ingram, Julie Jupp, Elizabeth Marsh, Christopher Ragland, Robbie Scotcher & Phil Wrigley

The Band/Catherine Jayes

John Doyle – Director & Set Designer
Matthew Wright – Costume Designer
Jane Cox – Lighting Designer
Gareth Owen – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 20 August, 2011
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London

Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show, with a book by John Weidman, has been through the mill and indeed on the road since its inception at the New York Theater Workshop in 1999. The show was then called Wise Guys and starred Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as the Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, a couple of legendary real-life American adventurers from the early part of the twentieth-century. It was directed by Sam Mendes but never got past the workshop stage. Harold Prince, who had already directed many other Sondheim shows, took over and the show was renamed Gold!. By 2001 it was decided that the show would open in Chicago the following year.

However, further hold-ups were incurred with a court action over the rights to stage the show. It finally opened – now called Bounce – at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June 2003 with Richard Kind and Howard McGillin as the brothers and former MGM star Jane Powell as Mama Mizner. Later that same year it surfaced at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. But Bounce was soon bounced-off by public and critics who seemed not to know what to make of it. The show has never reached Broadway in its ‘original’ or any other form. In 2006 there was a private reading of the show with Richard Kind and Bernadette Peters among others, but there the matter ended.

Another two years went by and then, enter John Doyle, former director at the Watermill Theatre in Bagnor (Berkshire) who has a reputation for re-inventing musical shows using performers who are actor-singer-dancer-musicians rolled into one. He had staged Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company in this way as well as Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel. He finally managed to make Bounce – now called Road Show – work in a cut-down, 100-minute, no-interval piece. It opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in October 2008, exactly nine years after its original inception, and, for its troubles, won the Obie Award for Music & Lyrics and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics.

It goes to prove, given the right circumstances, that a show in trouble can be fixed by the right person in the right circumstances. Road Show, travelling as it has been, finally has its European premiere at Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, a fringe venue in Southwark, and is doing smash business, just like Little Shop of Horrors, La Cage aux Folles and Sweet Charity, which all transferred to the West End, have done. Menier’s new versions of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music went to both the West End and Broadway.

The genesis of Wise Guys / Gold! / Bounce / Road Show goes back even further than 1999 as Sondheim had thought of writing a musical about the Mizner brothers back in the 1950s, based on Alex Johnston’s book The Legendary Mizners. He was going to use a guitar-playing balladeer as the narrator, a device later used in his Assassins (also written with John Weidman), which Road Show resembles in some way: both depict events in US history that reveal the nature of the American people, both good and bad. Irving Berlin had also toyed with the idea of a musical on the Mizners, with possible titles being Wise Guy, Sentimental Story or The Mizner Story. Berlin even wrote some songs before he too abandoned the project. Sondheim had discussed his project with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein and the idea was kept afloat for about three years until impresario David Merrick sent Sondheim (for the sake of comparison) the script of the unproduced musical that Berlin had been working on. Over forty years later Sondheim resurrected the idea when a commission came from the Kennedy Center for Wise Guys.

Was it worth the wait? Well, yes, because any show by Sondheim is worth waiting for. In 1962 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his first solo show (he wrote lyrics and music) was panned before it reached Broadway and might not have opened had director George Abbott not listened to choreographer Jerome Robbins (of West Side Story fame) who suggested replacing the opening number with a funny song (‘Comedy tonight’). He did listen, they did change the number and the show became a long-running hit. In re-fashioning to what Road Show now is, John Doyle has kept the nub of the idea, a quick spin through the lives of two fascinating characters, one an angel, the other a devil, who lived through some of the most interesting times in US history, from the 1880s to the 1930s, a pioneering era when people could make a lot of fast money and then lose it just as quickly. Road Show opens with the death of the brothers, as their friends look back over their extraordinary lives. They then appear and survey their lives with Wilson, the chancer, blaming Addison, the genius, for their downfall. Perhaps it was their father’s fault – he encouraged them to seize any and every possible opportunity. The wealth they made was spent medicating their father’s illness, so Mama Mizner persuades her sons to try the gold-rush in Alaska. While sensible Addison works their claim Wilson is gambling away their money at the poker table in a get-rich scheme. He wins the saloon – not what their mother had in mind.

Addison leaves his brother, setting off around the world, trying various projects but failing miserably until he finds he has a penchant for architecture. Having had his own share of failure, Wilson joins his brother and seduces Addison’s first client, a rich widow. He marries her and wastes her money on more bad ventures. Addison heads for the land-boom in Florida, determined to succeed as an architect. He meets Hollis Bessemer, the son of a rich industrialist. They become lovers and plan to build an artists’ colony in Palm Beach until Wilson turns up again to spoil things with fraudulent schemes. In the finale (after their deaths) they are reconciled by looking forward to the greatest opportunity of all – life after death.

In John Doyle’s slim-line version of Road Show, matters are condensed a little too much to keep up with the frantic pace, although it now seems the only way to play the show, fairly simply, as Sondheim and Weidman did with Assassins – a rush through the events of the Mizner brothers’ crowded lives. Like Assassins it is a dark view of a period in American history. The music and the lyrics are pure Sondheim and, if not all the songs are particularly memorable (yet), some numbers stand-out as infused with the excitement and spirit of vaudeville that reflect the almost-show-business quality of the brothers’ lives.

The excellent cast is headed by David Bedella as Wilson and Michael Jibson as Addison who play out the events on a bare traverse stage (with audience on both sides), onto which are toted various props to create multifarious locales. Jon Robyns as Hollis Bessemer, the young man who brings Addison out of the closet, strikes just the right elegant rich-boy note. Gillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake stand out as the Mizner parents but the rest of the ensemble are also splendidly occupied in keeping the show speedily on the road. Catherine Jayes’s band performs Sondheim’s indelible melodies with rapt attention to detail. Road Show (after so many transformations) is some kind of a hit which, despite being condensed into a quick sprint, is a satisfying, if probably minor, piece – but beats most current musicals you might care to mention.

  • Road Show is at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 until Saturday 17 September 2011
  • Performances Tuesday to Saturday 8 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday 3.30
  • Tickets on 020 7378 1713

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