Reinvention

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road show chicago shakesDuring the Middle Ages (actually 2003), I rushed back to Chicago from wherever I was commuting to at that time for work (New Jersey, which was and continues to be seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages) in order to see the world premiere production of Stephen Sondheim’s  and John Weidman’s Bounce at the Goodman Theater. This was Sondheim’s first show since 1990’s Assassins (also co-written with Weidman) and for theater geeks everywhere who worship at the shrine of Steve (where else would we be at?), this world premiere was equivalent to a new commandment being handed down from the mountaintop. Unfortunately, Bounce, which told the story of real life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner who embarked on a variety of get-rich-quick schemes in the early 20th century, was less sacrosanct tablet and more broken ceremonial vessel.  The Goodman production of Bounce, directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator Hal Prince, was a mess: despite some undeniably lovely Sondheim tunes here and there, it was boring, chaotic, filled with an air of desperation and incompleteness.  So when Chicago Shakespeare announced that Road Show, a revised and supposedly final version of Bounce that was originally seen at the Public Theater in 2008, would be part of its double bill of Gary Griffin-directed Sondheim musicals in spring 2014 (together with Gypsy), I was intrigued like I’m sure all Chicagoans who saw that musical theater equivalent of a disaster movie in 2003 were.  As a lifelong Sondheim aficionado, I’m thrilled to say then that Road Show, which opened last week, is a vast improvement from its earlier incarnation, thoroughly enjoyable, and in Griffin’s warm, intimate staging displays flashes of brilliance. But it is still imperfect Sondheim with a still-unsatisfying book, never achieving the perfection of Sweeney Todd or Follies or A Little Night Music, or, especially, Gypsy. However, I will take imperfect Sondheim over perfect any-other-theater-composer any time.

Road Show’s  premise is fascinating: the Mizner brothers , told by their father at his deathbed to go out and make something of themselves, keep on moving from one big scheme to another, from the Alaska gold rush of the late 1890s to the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s, always looking for the fast buck, constantly reinventing themselves (Wilson is at various points a boxing promoter, a Broadway playwright, a racehorse owner, and a Hollywood script doctor), continuously stroking gullible people to seize opportunities and live their dreams with one hand and emptying their wallets with the other .  In Bounce, this story was drowned out by the amount of characters, tiresome slapstick of the script and direction, and meandering two and a half hour running time; with Road Show at a more focused 90 minutes, the story takes precedence and focuses on the characters, with their darkness and insecurities, and surprisingly, in a plot point that was not in the earlier show, Addison’s disturbingly incestuous feelings for Wilson.  But even with the focus, the plot and the characters still don’t have much depth: the narrative feels rushed as it hurtles through at least three decades of the brothers’ lives; Wilson is painted more broadly than Addison, and thus comes off more unknowable and less relatable; the themes that Sondheim and Weidman tackle, from how America’s pioneer spirit can easily lead to hucksterism to the complex combination of sibling rivalry and love, still superficially developed.  The story as Sondheim and Weidman set out to tell it is, in my mind, unmanageable.

But there is that Sondheim score. Although there aren’t instant classics in this show like “Send in the Clowns” or “Losing My Mind”, there are several accomplished musical numbers, such as the memorable “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened”, which I loved from Bounce as well, sung by Addison and his younger boyfriend Hollis sweetly and plaintively;  and “Addison’s Trip”, which portrays Addison’s year of travelling the world after his first major falling out with Wilson, staged buoyantly by Griffin with the help of well-curated props from scenic designer Scott Davis.   And Griffin, similar to his previous impeccably staged Sondheim outings at Chicago Shakes, from Sunday in the Park with George to Follies to the companion piece Gypsy, directs Road Show with a thoughtful, plain-spoken, no-frills style which truly elevates the material, a marked contrast from Prince’s staging at the Goodman which was perplexingly traversing the unfunny side of caricature and broadness. Griffin moves through the scenes crisply, the music is played mainly by a piano player (the heroic Matt Deitchman) supported by the ensemble cast playing various instruments in the style of John Doyle’s Sondheim productions, and Davis’ delightfully simple and minimalist set design provides an evocative performance space.

And what a terrific cast is on view in that performance space. The singing in Road Show is flawless. I’ve been critical in the past of Sondheim productions in Chicago because of singing that are more appropriate to Andrew Lloyd Webber (snicker), but this latest crop of Sondheim shows currently on Chicago stages (including Gypsy and The Hypocrites’ Into the Woods) have brought out the best Sondheim interpreters in the city from whichever woodwork they had previously been hiding in.  Road Show’s ensemble is particularly fine, with major shoutouts to Larry Adams who sings Papa Mizner and other roles with a clear, deep, expressive baritone, and the magnetic McKinley Carter who has brightened up many a Chicago theater here playing a variety of roles including a fabulously brittle turn as Wilson’s sugar mommy of a wife.  The three leads are excellent: New York actor Robert Lenzi is adorably worshipful as Addison’s flighty boyfriend Hollis Bessemer and radiantly sings the marvelous “Talent”; Andrew Rothenberg  plays the underwritten Wilson with an endearing mix of masculine roguishness and delicacy; and Michael Aaron Lindner, who I’ve admired in many a Chicago musical, poignantly paints a complicated Addison, both in love with and jealous of his  more flamboyant and enterprising brother, convinced of his own limited talents, and struggles sadly to come into his own.  Lindner’s performance of the penultimate number “Get Out/Go” is heartbreaking, and marvelously crystallizes that the haunting, melancholy beating heart of this imperfect Sondheim work is the dreamer whose dreams are constantly shattered.

This is a major production of Road Show so you should see it. It might take another 11 years for this Sondheim show to come back to Chicago! Road Show is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Upstairs Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave, on Navy Pier.

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