Those waiting for the next great Stephen Sondheim musical will have to wait a bit longer.
The most significant problem with Sondheim's new show, Bounce which just opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. after a previous production in Chicago, isn't that it's not great, it's that it's not new.
Bounce seems to have been constructed from pieces left over or borrowed outright from Sondheim's earlier musicals. The deconstruction of an entertainment form so integral to Follies. The brash brassiness joyously infecting the score and orchestrations to Merrily We Roll Along. Musical vamps that may have been lifted directly from Sweeney Todd. Analyzing the depths of artistic expression much as in Sunday in the Park With George. Musical scenes so cleverly stylized, they wouldn't be out of place in Pacific Overtures. At times, even the costume drama and lithe romantic comedy of A Little Night Music struggle to make an appearance.
Sondheim, his librettist John Weidman, and his director Harold Prince have not concretely decided what Bounce truly needs to be, so it's too much - or too little - of everything. Bounce is replete with clever staging tricks, musical comedy razzle dazzle, and boisterous and good-natured musical storytelling, but never really finds the ideal language for its characters or the audience following their escapades for over two and a half hours.
One can't help but wonder how much Bounce's stormy gestation is to blame for its identity crisis. Is the show's vaudeville semi-theme a remnant of the 1999 Wise Guys workshop that started it all? How much of the show's celebration of the enterprising spirit seemed just right for its second title, Gold? And was the spirit of American resilience in the face of tragedy ever quite as integral as the show's current title seems to suggest? Regardless, these elements are vital enough to successfully coalesce into a workable musical story of the real-life Mizner brothers, Wilson (Howard McGillin) and Addison (Richard Kind); the exact form just hasn't yet been found.
At least the show's general subject matter of making something from nothing and having a good time doing it is potent with musical possibilities. But very few of these are effectively realized. The most notable success is the lengthy second act sequence comprising "Addison's City" and "Get Rich Quick," which chronicles the brothers' attempts to exploit valuable Florida real estate in the future Boca Raton. These songs deliver exactly the energy and excitement the show needs - and thinks it has - from beginning to end; they don't recall Sondheim at his peak as much as they prove he does still have what it takes.
But aside from a couple of others (such as the title song and the lovely duet "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened"), many numbers generally languish in a flood of semi-narration, semi-development malaise. Songs like "What's Your Rush?" (sung to Wilson by his on-again-off-again flame Nellie, played by Michelle Pawk, when they first meet in the Yukon), "Isn't He Something?" (sung by the Mizner's mother, played by the incandescent Jane Powell, on her death bed), and "Talent" (sung by Addison's business partner and eventual lover, played by Gavin Creel, on a train to Florida) have strong ideas but poor execution, vanishing in one's memory and emotions as soon as they're over.
None of this is really the fault of the performers - they do admirable work. Kind is a particular discovery, a natural clown who can hold his own against the dapper and big-voiced McGillin surprisingly well. Powell's every appearance is a grin-sparking pleasure, and Herndon Lackey - portraying the voice of Opportunity itself in ten or so different guises - has a few choice moments. But the contributions from Pawk and Creel have not been maximized; Pawk shows up so often in out-of-the-way places she seems little more than a dramatic device, and Creel is stuck in a mostly excrescent role that allows him few real chances to connect with the other characters or the audience.
Perhaps these are all faults of Weidman's book - it's pleasant enough, but trim, and perhaps doesn't provide Sondheim enough leeway to effectively musicalize characters or events. Or perhaps Prince simply hasn't yet hooked into the show's ideal concept, settling instead on a half-developed idea of having the Mizner brothers die in the first scene and narrate the show through something of an ongoing vaudeville of one-upmanship. Eugene Lee's two-dimensional sets, Miguel Angel Huidor's one-note-sustained costumes, and Howell Binkley's lights all support this concept, but can never expand it or make it fresh. And aside from the sheer technical aspects of the show's musical presentation (David Caddick's musical direction, Jonathan Tunick's typically peerless orchestrations, and the terrific overture), little else about the show seems quite right.
"Only one thing ever dies... opportunity," sounds one of the show's early lyrics. It could just as well apply to the show as a whole, though hopefully its avenues of opportunity are not yet completely closed off. Bounce has already overcome a series of difficult obstacles and grown stronger and closer to its eventual goal with each attempt. If Sondheim, Weidman, and Prince can apply the same can-do spirit to their work on the show that they solemnize in the show, Bounce may very well eventually soar.
For now, though, it's unequivocally land bound, a ball of potential energy waiting for the means and opportunity to explode. I have no doubt that Bounce can one day be its promised kinetic success, but that won't happen in its current form.