nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 14, 2008
After we left Road Show, I characterized it this way for my companion: Disappointing. She said: Trivial. We are both right, I'm afraid.
Road Show comes to New York after a long developmental history, during which it has been variously titled "Gold!," "Wise Guys," and "Bounce." Trouble is, the seams all show: Road Show feels very much like the cobbled-together fourth version of a musical drama that's still trying to find its center. There are moments of brilliance in it—mostly courtesy of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and his invaluable orchestrator Jonathan Tunick—and there is at least one terrific performance on view, that of Michael Cerveris as gambler/con man/drifter Wilson Mizner. But this long-awaited new Sondheim musical —after 14 years!—is, finally, a sad let-down.
The story revolves around Addison and Wilson Mizner, real-life brothers whose colorful lives took them from the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s to the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s; these two events more or less frame Road Show, which begins with the death of the Mizners' father and concludes with the deaths of Addison and Wilson, just a few weeks apart, in 1933. In between, Wilson cons his way in and out of fortunes by marrying a rich widow and becoming a boxing promoter, playwright, and movie producer; and Addison travels around the world, realizes his true calling as an architect, and falls in love with the handsome young scion of the Bessemer steel fortune.
So much incident! Individually, many of the unrelated events of the Mizners' lives inspire musical numbers that are lively or caustic or pastiche; some of these are worthy exemplars of Sondheim's remarkable talent. The boys' mother urges them to find their fortunes in Alaska singing this spare lyric:
Haven't you been listening?
Sitting there and glistening!
And later, when Willie discovers his true path as a professional grifter, he sings a magnificently edgy song called "The Game"; as performed with raw conviction and passion by Cerveris, it's Road Show's highlight.
But what never happens in this show is the development of a point of view about the Mizners. The show jumps around a variety of perspectives on their lives without ever settling on the one that will define them for us. Is Road Show about the unconditional bond between brothers? Is it about Addison's discovery, late in life, of true love with Hollis Bessemer? Is it, as the title suggests, the story of the eternal journey each of us takes away from our roots and toward our own destinies? Is it symbolic: do the Mizners somehow represent America? Every one of these ideas is clearly presented at some point in Road Show. Probably just one, more fully fleshed out, would be better.
Director John Doyle has staged the show on a cluttered, ugly set (of his own design), depicting what the script calls a pyramid of trunks, packing crates, and old furniture. It dominates and constricts the playing area. I wasn't sure what Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are supposed to represent but I was fascinated by them: naturalistic clothing in earthtones for the Mizners and their parents, with the ensemble garbed in lighter-colored pieces that are covered in detailed linear patterns whose exact nature I could never quite make out.
A ten-member ensemble backs up the five principals (the four Mizners plus Hollis Bessemer); they include such musical theatre stalwarts as Anne L. Nathan, Kristine Zbornik, and William Youmans but are oddly drained of individuality, so that I was seldom aware of who specifically I was watching at any given time. Claybourne Elder is little more than a cipher in the admittedly underwritten role of Hollis; but both Alma Cuervo and William Parry make much of their limited opportunities as the Mizner's parents, especially the former. Alexander Gemignani gives us a competent take on Addison, but he's overshadowed by Cerveris's ultra-high-wattage turn as Wilson, the more dazzling of the two Mizners. Cerveris is better here than I've seen him in years; I wanted the show to be better than it was most of all for his sake, because the work he's doing in this role is breathtaking.
I started this review with two adjectives, disappointing and trivial. The former is the one that applies when we stack Road Show up against our expectations, and begs the question of how Road Show might measure up were it not the work of the premier creator of musical theatre of the last 40 years or so. And that's where that latter word fits into the puzzle—because I think the most surprising thing of all for me about Road Show is ultimately how inconsequential it feels. The incisiveness, the resonance that I was yearning for simply never materialized. And that is kind of a sad thing.