BWW Review: Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman's ROAD SHOW Explores Reinvention and Resiliency
Raul Esparza and Brandon Uranowitz Star as the Legendary Mizner Brothers in City Center Encores! Off-Center's Production
When he passed on at age 60 in 1933, Addison Mizner was best known as the architect whose Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean styles helped define the emerging visual culture of South Florida. When his younger brother Wilson Mizner died two months later, he was best known as a raconteur whose name could occasionally be found among the writing credits of a Broadway play or Hollywood feature.
But the two of them, both as a team and separately, became a model, or perhaps a cautionary tale, for the entrepreneurial spirit of late 19th/early 20th Century America by reinventing and redefining themselves in an assortment of ventures, always bouncing back from failure while gaining and losing fortunes along the way.
So it seems appropriate that the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical about the Mizners has been continually redefined and reinvented since it premiered in 1999 for a limited run at New York Theatre Workshop.
There was never a production under the piece's next title, GOLD!, but, with Harold Prince now directing, BOUNCE, starring Richard Kind and Howard McGillan, revised the format to traditional musical comedy. 2003 engagements in Chicago and Washington, D.C. were intended to precede a Broadway opening, but those plans fizzled after disappointing reviews.
The musical finally returned to New York with The Public Theater's production of Road Show, with the brothers now portrayed by Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris. Under John Doyle's direction, Road Show was presented as a Brechtian chamber musical, with background characters voicing harsh commentary.
Director/choreographer Will Davis doesn't exactly reinvent Road Show for the excellent City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production but does add an interesting concept. The story, at least at the outset, is presented as a 1930s radio drama, with actors reading their scripts from music stands and speaking into period microphones. Stationed upstage are the thirteen members of music director/conductor James Moore playing Jonathan Tunick's expert orchestrations. The production tends to swerve in and out of the concept when the material really demands staging.
Much of the score is of the traditional musical theatre vein, though darker in tone, with hints of Aaron Copland nobility and Jazz Age excess peppering appropriate moments, as well as extended musical scenes that concisely deliver swarths of detail.
As with BOUNCE, Road Show begins with the brothers meeting in the afterlife, trying to sort out what they did in the past six decades. But where BOUNCE had them duetting a title song that served as a positive anthem to resiliency, Sondheim revises the lyric for Road Show, having those who knew Addison, upon hearing of his demise, criticizing him for wasting his talent.
Raul Esparza is slick and steely as the risk-taking Wilson, contrasting with the cautious pragmatism of Brandon Uranowitz's sweet and likable Addison. Encouraged by the dying words of their father (beautifully dignified Chuck Cooper) and goaded on by their high-spirited mother (delightful Mary Beth Peil), the fellows seek their fortunes. The 100-minute one-act musical focuses on their exploits during the Alaska gold rush and the Florida land boom, where Addison's honestly-earned initial successes evaporate when Wilson attempts to gamble and fast-talk them into jackpots.
In all versions, the authors have taken liberties with the facts, primarily with the invention of a wealthy lad named Hollis (nicely earnest Jin Ha), looking to revolt against his father by using family money to create an artist colony. After Addison becomes the golden boy of South Florida by designing glorious homes for the rich, he and Hollis become romantically involved.
But the society kid isn't prepared to witness the underhanded sales pitches devised by Wilson when the three of them agree to partner up in a property-selling enterprise. It's here where Road Show explores the idealism of the American dream versus the reality of achieving success by playing the angles and attracting the suckers.