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Road Show

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The next-to-last thing a musical needs if it's been gestating for a decade is a different title, especially if it's already gone through three - that's enough to make you think the creators have no clue what they're writing. The last thing a musical needs if it's been gestating for 10 years is direction by John Doyle, who has yet to demonstrate with any musical he's helmed in New York that he's had any clue what their creators actually wrote. Road Show, the energetically uninvolving musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman that just opened at The Public Theater's Newman Theater, has both.

But the curse hovering over this show like pre-funnel tornado clouds goes well beyond Doyle and well beyond Bounce, Gold, and Wise Guys, the other titles attached to this show centering on the endlessly enterprising Mizner Brothers since its first public appearance in 1999. It ultimately extends back to composer Sondheim and librettist Weidman themselves: They've spent so much time rewriting and rethinking, the trouble is no longer that their show isn't any good - though it isn't - but that it's no longer much of anything at all.

This wasn't the case five years ago, when Bounce appeared at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in a production directed by famed Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince. Sondheim's first new show since 1994 seemed a musical comedy of unhappy vintage, charting with cross-eyed optimism the resiliency and resourcefulness of Wilson and Addison Mizner as they sought their fortune across the United States from the late 1800s to the early 1930s.

Conceived then as an airy homage to the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies, a comic picaresque encapsulating the brothers' adventures in the Yukon, New York, Florida, and environs in between, Bounce faltered primarily because it professed to embrace the future but instead plumbed the past for its inspiration. Both Prince's staging and Sondheim's score actively recalled the men's earlier, better work, and the absence of any new ideas gave the show an emptiness its resolute lightness was too insignificant to support.

Road Show suffers from the opposite problem. Hacked down (from over two and a half hours with an intermission to 100 minutes without one) and darkened up, it says nothing positive about either the capitalist ideal or the Mizners' travels through a land that - even at its best - makes success a challenging slog. Sondheim and Weidman have somewhat reconceived Renaissance Con Man Wilson and inventive architect Addison; no longer dedazzled and bewildered by the endless expanses of opportunity they face, they're now more like freeloaders hitching a ride in life's baggage compartment. Doyle's set - a cluttered collection of packing crates, suitcases, and filing cabinets - supports this, but almost nothing else does.

Making mistake after catostrophic mistake in their quests for riches and recognition, Wilson (Michael Cerveris) and Addison (Alexander Gemignani) are little more than sneering symbols of our country's overriding preference for "get rich quick" rather than "get rich smart." But because they embody only the debilitating folly of personal progress, they're at irrenconcilable odds with the score, most of which was written back when this property was supposed to be a musical comedy. Played on a set, and in costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, that suggest more in their color than in their style defecation on the American Dream, and with Doyle's laugh-killing, surface-level direction (the actors look more at the audience than each other, speak primarily in disconnected or indicatory monotones, and affect personality traits and tics unrelated to their characters), laughs are impossible.

Most of the songs are lost in the pervasive muddiness, with wide-angled numbers like "Addison's Trip" (chronicling the world tour from which he designed his design aesthetic) and pinpoint solos like the Wilson-praising "Isn't He Something!" for the brothers' dying mother (Alma Cuervo) or "Talent" for Addison's boyfriend-muse Hollis (Claybourne Elder) having the same negligible impact. Cerveris and Gemignani make a valiant go of humanizing the brothers in the dialogue as well as the music, but are consistently dwarfed by the set and their own outsized performances, which makes both far too distasteful even to carry a show about the disgusting side-effects of pursuing the dollar. Elder, handsomely understated, fares the best of the principles, though he shows up only as the action moves toward its devastating conclusion in Boca Raton.

In Bounce, that's where the story kicked into high gear; here, it's where it stalls. Because the writing and Doyle's direction allows the brothers no tantalizing highs, their final fast track to the bottom is all but meaningless. It is, however, unsurprising: Whatever the focus of the story, be it fortune (as in Bounce), folly (as here), or something in between, it requires scope to provide context, focus to provide immediacy, and a sense of risk to provide the essence of the America the Mizners represent. Road Show has none of these things.

When the Mizners' long-deceased father (William Parry) tells them as they approach the end of their road, "I expected you'd make history, boys. Instead you made a mess," you want to scream just that at Sondheim and Weidman. If this show's journey still isn't finished, it will never get anywhere until it knows what its final destination is. Another title change alone won't do the trick.

Road Show
Through December 28
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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