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Review - Road Show: We've Learned How To Bounce

"Sooner or later we're bound to get it right."

That's the final line of Road Show, the new Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical, directed by John Doyle, that's opened at The Public.

It was also the final line of Bounce, the Harold Prince directed previous version of Road Show, which for a time was to be known as Gold!, that that did not make its presumed arrival to Broadway after tepidly received engagements in Chicago and Washington, back in ought three.

I have no idea if was the final line in 1999, when the show was known as Wise Guys and Sam Mendes directed a workshop production that, according to a Sondheim-penned article published in the in the New York Times before their first performance, was set to, "open on Broadway on April 27 at a theater to be announced."

I won't venture a guess as to what the final line was back in 1952, when Sondheim first got the idea to musicalize the lives of turn-of-the-century architect Addison Mizner and his bon vivant brother, Wilson, only to find that producer David Merrick had bought the rights to one of their biographies and assigned Irving Berlin and S. N. Behrman to work on the (eventually abandoned) project.

But the point, dear readers, is that after ten years of development, performances, revisions and even an original cast album, I do believe Messrs. Sondheim and Weidman have gotten it right.

Not that Road Show will be loved by everybody. Its dark, sardonic commentary on what happens when the land of opportunity falls into the clutches of the opportunistic can make Assassins seem a crowd-pleaser by comparison. And truth be told I rather enjoyed Bounce, the lighter and funnier musical comedy variation of the material that played Chicago. (I was only slightly less enthused about the revised edition that played in DC shortly after) But Road Show is a better musical drama than Bounce was a musical comedy, if only for the fact that, streamlined to an intermission-less 100 minutes and stricken of a leading lady character that, though played with scene stealing aplomb by Michele Pawk, far overstayed her usefulness on stage, there is simply less that doesn't work. And what remains is enticing, intriguing, intelligent and stylishly presented.

Spurned on by the deathbed advice of their father (William Parry) to take advantage of America's road to opportunity in the new century, the cautious, conservative Addison Mizner (Alexander Gemignani) and his irresponsible and irrepressible brother, Wilson (Michael Cerveris) embark on an uneasy partnership that begins with the Alaska gold rush and ends with the Florida land boom. In between, Addie uses his talent for architecture to build a potentially stabile life taking care of their mother (an adorable Alma Cuervo) while Willie marries well and uses his talent for charm and promotion to earn and lose a bundle fixing horse races and boxing matches while putting his name on a Broadway play of dubious authorship.

While a good deal of Bounce's dialogue and score has been retained for Road Show, most of the songs have experienced at least minimal lyric changes to suit altered plot points and a new thematic focus. There are also some complete cuts and fresh additions to the score but the most significant change is not so much in the material but in John Doyle's staging that favors commentary over empathy. The entire company of 15 is continually on stage, positioned among a wall of crates, filing cabinets and boxes (designed by Doyle) reacting with derision or detached amusement when not directly involved in a scene. They're not required to play musical instruments, as in his Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, but, as has become an identifiable style of his, they often say lines facing front, disconnected from the characters they are speaking to. While Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Jane Cox's lights inspire sepia-toned nostalgia, as does the Sondheim music which, while not exactly period, is often traditionally attractive and catchy, Doyle twists the American dream into a ghoulish nightmare where a kid can grow up to be anything he wants so long as there are a sufficient number of suckers handy.

Sure, like in any Doyle production there are one or two what-the-hell-am-I-looking-at moments (Having the cast change into costumes covered with blueprint designs is this show's equivalent of Sweeney Todd's little white coffin.) but there are also inspired moves like having characters regularly toss money in the air like confetti; a staging conceit bound to make Gerard Alessandrini drool.

The two leads work splendidly together, with Cerveris' reckless, coke-snorting Willie transforming from a well-meaning gambler to the devil sitting on his brother's shoulder and whispering temptations in his ear. The sweet-voiced Gemignani plays Addie with a quiet dignity as he adjusts to adversity and his brother's antics. He also sings the lovely "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," with Claybourne Elder, who plays his romantic interest; a wealthy young lad who wishes to rebel against his father by founding an artist colony. In Bounce the cynical lyric was sung by Willie as an expression of love for what another person can do for him. Here, it borders on cerebral sappiness.

Fans of the famous Sondheim lyrical density won't be disappointed by rhymes like, "We'll never make our fortune / Just by sitting on the porch 'n' / Looking wistful / When there are nuggets by the fistful," but, as this is not a show about intellectuals, the flashiness is appropriately kept to a minimum.

The mere fact that it has a (sorta) new Stephen Sondheim score justifies calling Road Show a must-see. It being a fascinating piece of grown-up musical theatre given a darkly entertaining production and featuring a strong cast is just a happy bonus.

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