Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show at Menier Chocolate Factory

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David Bedella and Michael Jibson in Road Show. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

David Bedella and Michael Jibson in Road Show. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Road Show
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Book – John Weidman
Direction and Set Design – John Doyle
Musical Supervision & Direction – Catherine Jayes
Costume Design – Matthew Wright
Lighting Design – Jane Cox
Sound Design – Gareth Owen
Orchestrations – Jonathon Tunick

David Bedella
Gillian Bevan
Adrian Der Gregorian
Fiona Dunn
Sarah Ingram
Michael Jibson
Julie Jupp
Glyn Kerslake
Elizabeth Marsh
Christopher Ragland
Jon Robyns
Robbie Scotcher
Phil Wrigley

Music at the close. The adage is leave ’em wanting more, not less, but Stephen Sondheim has barely skirted the latter fate. At eighty-one, he’s been erratically revising a problem child since 1999 that is now called, blandly, Road Show. Under various uninspired titles—Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce—the musical flipped and flopped around the country from Chicago to New York and Washington D.C. At every step of the way Sondheim, being Sondheim, attracted the biggest names to direct and star, including Hal Prince and Nathan Lane. But no luck.

What went wrong? The book was based on the riotous lives of two legendary con men, the Mizner brothers, who swindled a du Pont, a Vanderbilt, and a Wanamker, among many other gilt-edged gulls, with inflated Florida land in the Twenties. Irving Berlin flirted with writing a musical about them. Mark Twain would have loved these rascals, who left a brazen trail from the Klondike Gold Rush to Hollywood, and who had a gift for quips: the younger brother, Wilson Mizner, described his years at Warner Brothers writing early talkies as “a tour of the sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.” (I’m holding up the train, but I can’t resist two signs Wilson posted in a shady hotel that he managed in New York City: “Guests must carry out their own dead” and “No opium smoking in the elevators.”)

Was it Sondheim and not the story? The composer was just shy of seventy when the project germinated. He hadn’t had a popular hit for thirteen years, ever since Into the Woods (1987), not counting the arcane but deeply moving Passion, which followed in 1994. It took courage to continue struggling after the bubbles went flat in Sondheim’s concoction of champagne with a soupçon of arsenic. He dominated Broadway for three decades by reversing every sentimental formula, preferring cynicism, subtlety, and a deep suspicion about love. Getting the public to accept “whipped cream and knives,” his own description of A Little Night Music, was hit-and-miss. They wanted schmaltz, he gave them brilliance. But with his last effort, the brilliance was gone. My dismay after hearing the 2003 revision, the one called Bounce, which was shockingly ordinary, brought the heart-sick feeling that age had ended a career before Sondheim was aware of his decline, as happened to Richard Rodgers.

The good news at the current London revival under director John Doyle, a one-man resurrection artist for Sondheim musicals, is that Road Show works. Two acts have been trimmed to one, the pacing is fast, the tone is as antic as vaudeville, and the performances crackle. Doyle used a boot to cram this debutant into her corset, but she’s dancing and smiling. The bland title is at least accurate. On his deathbed Papa Mizner shows his grown songs the road ahead, a metaphor for the burgeoning opportunities of the twentieth century, and the rest of the show is based on traveling music, without pause except for a scattering of ballads that remain from the original, inflated version. In his prime, Sondheim would have achieved his intention to use the Mizners for big, big significance. Pared down, with its hellzapoppin’ zest and nonstop motion, the musical is a Hope-Crosby movie on speed: The Road to Boca Raton?

It’s hardly as resonant as The Road to Rio, but Addison Mizner, the older brother, became a respectable architect for the rich in Palm Beach and launched a development scheme for the fledgling Boca Raton before somebody blew the whistle financially and the bottom fell out. As panoramic as the Mizners’ escapades were—they included fixed boxing matches, dealing in Guatemalan artifacts, cardsharping, claim-jumping, and founding the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood – travelogues aren’t plots, and ending up in Boca Raton isn’t climbing Kilimanjaro. The book by John Weidman distills the tall stories into antic episodes, but a road is a road is a road.

Doyle’s solution, believe it or not, is a hint of incest and turning the romance over to Addison and his gay lover, a spoiled rich kid named Hollis. The boyfriend joins in the feckless Florida schemes and is the object of Sondheim’s nicest ballad, “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” originally sung to a girl. The London critics seem to feel that this was a change for the better, overlooking that Sondheim has assiduously avoided creating gay characters. In the end, the gay theme doesn’t matter. First of all, you can’t tell who the gay characters are from anyone else (this is Broadway), and the two leads—David Bedella as Willie and Michael Jibson as Addie—are too frantically entertaining to give off sexual vibes. Both actors are short, with excellent voices and sharp timing. They deliver a punch with every scene.

Add a uniformly vibrant crew of supporting players who are constantly on the go—Doyle doesn’t ask the cast to play musical instruments, as he did with his famous makeovers of Sweeney Todd and Company, but everyone bustles around moving furniture and creating tableaux to place us in Hawaii, Alaska, New York, Palm Beach, and points east. If fizz were the same as sizzle, Road Show would be a major success. But after an hour you realize that Sondheim is bowing out with a medley of his favorite gestures from the past. Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George, his two most jittery, bouncy scores, come to mind most often. Both are masterpieces, and the idioms that the composer devised, even when mined in a shallow vein, bring enjoyment here.

In the Doyle rendition, Road Show first appeared Off Broadway in 2008, so I suppose it has found a place, an affectionately lit niche, where it will remain. The Menier Chocolate Factory is a bijou theater located, rather menacingly, in a suffocating brick-lined chamber, half underground, that must be noisily air conditioned throughout so that the audience might breathe. Yet it pops to life with lights, color, action. Since the Mizners wasted money on a Saudi scale, the cast showers the audience with hundred dollar bills every chance it gets. I was happy to collect a fistful to take away. What’s a waste of money compared to the waste of a great talent? Happily, it didn’t come to that in the end.

[John Doyle’s entertainment based on Rodgers and Hart songs, Ten Cents a Dance, will open at the Williamstown Theatre Festival on August 11, 2011.—Ed.]

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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